Bidding against climate change: Tim DeChristopher
- Published: 10 July 2010
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Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher faces 10 years in jail for falsely bidding in some oil and gas auctions in the US to protest climate change. He spoke with Katrina Fox.
In 2008 Tim DeChristopher bid on a number of oil and gas auctions in the US as an action against climate change. By registering as a bidder, Tim drove up prices on many parcels and eventually won over a million dollars worth of oil leases before federal agents removed him from the room.
The auction was disrupted so effectively that no one knew what to do for a while, and the leases remained in suspension. Later, a judge ruled that the process had been corrupt all along (courtesy of the outgoing Bush administration) and shortly thereafter, Secretary Salazar formally nullified the whole process, erasing the auction results completely.
It was not until 1 April 2010 that two felonies were formally filed against Tim: one for violating the “Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Act,” and one for making false statements to the government (by filling out the form to go into the auction). Now he faces trial and 10 years in prison.
In 2008 you registered as a bidder at an oil and gas auction in the US, driving up prices before you were removed from the auction room. In what way did you hope that your ‘fake’ bidding of the leases would have a direct impact on preventing climate change?
I hoped that the direct impact would be to create enough chaos to delay the auction of those parcels until the new Obama administration came into office in January of 2009, and that they would then be overturned, as the Obama transition team had already indicated they wanted to do if there was an opportunity. That goal has been successfully realized, with the result being thousands of barrels of oil have been kept in the ground.
Less directly, I hoped my action and subsequent prosecution would bring attention to the corruption of the oil leasing process and the destructiveness of the "drill now, think later" mentality that permeated US energy policy. That goal has been partially realized, with the reversal of some Bush era policies that allowed the oil industry to write their own rules.
How and when did they realise you were not a ‘real’ bidder?
I started tentatively, just driving up the prices without winning parcels. Some of the oilmen in the room eyed me curiously because they didn't know who I was, but the auction continued.
When I finally decided to start winning parcels, I went all in and was not subtle. I was winning every single parcel, and by the last few, I was keeping my bid card up constantly, not even bringing it down between bids.
After I won 13 parcels in a row, they stopped the auction, and two federal agents asked me to step outside. When they asked about my intentions, I told them that I was doing whatever I could to disrupt this auction, which I saw as a fraud against the American people and a threat to my future.
They questioned me for another three hours, and I told them everything they wanted to know about why I felt my actions were justified.
The auction was later nullified by a judge for being corrupt, yet you have still been charged and face a 10-year prison term. Why do you think this is?
I was charged after the government admitted the auction was illegal in the first place. The effect of my action was to call attention to the auction and force people to take a second look at it.
If after that closer look, they decided that everything was kosher, the parcels would have been re-auctioned, and the only cost of my action would have been another day's salary for the auctioneer. If that had been the case, I believe I would not have been prosecuted. They would have swept it under the rug and not given me any more attention.
But since that second look revealed that the auction was inappropriate in the first place, the parcels were rescinded, costing the oil industry money. Since I had cost some very powerful people a lot of money, they had to prosecute me to set an example.
Your legal team has not been allowed to argue that your actions were carried out to prevent damage to the environment and as a stance against climate change. How will this affect your defense?
The ban on the necessity defense will make it very difficult for my legal team to bring up the relevant facts of the auction, including the fact that the government has already admitted it was illegal in the first place.
That ruling makes it far more likely that I will be convicted, but it also makes it much more obvious to the public that our legal system is corrupt. Most Americans are shocked to learn that a judge can prevent a defendant from defending himself in front of a jury.
We seem to have a lot of armchair liberals who see the threats we face from climate change, but still hold on to the illusion that we have an effective democratic system that protects our interests.
Perhaps the injustice of my trial will bring those folks one step closer to shedding that illusion.
The US has seen the introduction of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) which has been used to prosecute animal rights activists who have not even taken part in illegal, direct actions. What impact has this and other legislation used to prosecute activists had on the activist movement?
The AETA has primarily only affected animal rights activists, which are quite distinct from most of the environmental or climate justice movement. There has been very little crackdown on the climate movement, perhaps because there's not much to crack down on.
The strategy of dealing with our movement seems to be the opposite of that for the animal rights movement. Rather than intimidation, the authorities have used seduction to make our movement benign.
The environmental movement in the US is barraged by the message that as long as we're not confrontational or demanding, the powers that be will want to work with us.
The Big Green groups like Sierra Club and EDF have weekly meetings in the White House where they feel very special because they're talking to Obama's staffers. That illusion of influence lulls those leaders into never challenging Obama to actually defend a liveable future for fear of losing their seat at the table.
On a smaller scale, the same type of seduction happens with polluting companies who want to "work with" the environmental groups that should be holding them accountable.
In our attempts to pressure Rio Tinto to stop burning coal in the Salt Lake Valley, many local environmental groups are discouraged from joining our campaign because Rio Tinto claims to be their ally in fighting climate change and is installing energy efficient windows to prove it.
Your trial has been put off yet again till September 2010. Why is this and how are you coping and getting through the delays?
The reason we were given for the latest delay is that the judge had an emergency meeting in DC for a secret panel of judges that gives wiretapping warrants.
With the Gulf Disaster and another oil spill in the heart of Salt Lake City, it also happens to be a very bad time to try to put someone in prison for standing in the way of irresponsible oil drilling.
While emotionally frustrating, the delays are good for us logistically. The delays give us an opportunity to continue to educate the public about the facts of the auction and the rights of a jury that they will not be allowed to hear once the trial begins.
Even thought there is pretty broad knowledge of the inappropriateness of the auction, jury members are led to believe that they don't have the right to act upon that knowledge.
The jury has a legally unquestionable right to decide not just on the facts of the case, but also on the law itself, but my lawyers are actually not allowed to tell the jury about those rights. So our only hope is a juror gets that knowledge before entering the courtroom.
You’ve got some quite high-profile supporters such as Naomi Klein and Robert Redford. What effect has their support had on you and your campaign for justice?
I'm very encouraged to see growing support for civil disobedience among high-profile figures, especially those like Daryl Hannah and James Hanson who actually engage in it themselves.
I'm hoping the support people like Bill McKibben are showing for my action is a first step to them using their networks and influence to actually call others to civil disobedience.
What are your thoughts on how your case has been covered so far in the mainstream media?
I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the mainstream media coverage of my story. They have certainly missed parts of the issue, like the corporate influence of our government, and focused too heavily on the defense of wilderness, but overall the coverage has been honest.
I think a big part of that was that I had the first word, speaking to the media immediately after the auction and framing the issue on my terms. Any efforts to brand me with labels like "eco-terrorist" have fallen flat because I continued to tell my side of the story as openly and frequently as possible.
If I had followed the conventional wisdom about not saying anything incriminating, I probably would have torn apart by the media and the story would have largely been irrelevant.
Tell us a bit about yourself – where you are from and what led you to engage in this creative, non-violence act of civil disobedience.
I grew up in West Virginia in a coal mining area, and have lived in many different places around the country since then. I grew up with a strong environmental ethic from my parents, and I always spent a lot of time in the wilderness.
Before the auction I had spent five years working with kids in the wilderness, and so was fairly detached from society and politics. I think those five years was enough time to lose my tolerance for the madness of society, and upon return I found it unacceptable and deserving of sacrifice in order to change it.
I also spent a lot of time studying America's history of social movements, particularly the Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights movements.
What reactions have you had from family and friends to your action?
Mixed. Most of my family is supportive, but very concerned about the consequences I will have to face.
My politically active friends saw something like this coming from me, and have been incredibly supportive. My non-politically-active friends have moved on.
The university has been very supportive, with some of my economic professors actively helping my case and my continued activism.
When I was debating lightening my course load in the chaos after the auction, my professors told me I could learn economics anytime, but that this was my one opportunity to engage in this battle.
What would you say to other activists considering similar ways of protesting climate change or other causes?
I think the most effective actions are those which are genuine expressions of our humanity. Civil disobedience is powerful because the most powerful statement we can make is through our own willingness to sacrifice our comfort, freedom, or life. I strongly encourage others to take whatever action they think might have an impact.
What can readers of The Scavenger do to help you?
Join me. The authorities have been very clear that my prosecution is about setting an example that discourages others from standing up against the fossil fuel industry.
It's not about me, but about scaring others into being complicit with injustice. So the most important thing is for people to send a message that they will not be scared into complicity.
The trial in September will be a great time to get arrested. The site climatetrial.org has been set up by some folks trying to organize around the trial.
Visit the Bidder70.org website for more information and join the campaign for justice for Tim DeChristopher.