Apolitically Incorrect – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Oil and Gas Lease Auction

Written By: Michael Raysses

Greetings, folks. Welcome to Apolitically Incorrect. I will be your host and emcee, thanks to the good folks here at Chicks with Guns, who have asked me to write a political column for the magazine. My only problem with a “political column” is that I think it’s a dated notion. As far as I’m concerned, everything is political.

The thought that everything is political is a logical extension of the disintegration of the lines that once separated distinct topics into cozy realms. Remember the good old days when there was “news” and “entertainment”? Right, now what we get is “infotainment”—the ugly, ill-informed Siamese twin born of their unholy coupling. The offspring bears faint resemblance to its parents while providing none of the benefit of its lineage. For better or worse, I feel that the same fate has befallen politics. It has lost its place as a free-standing topic. And I would argue that this is the case no matter whose characterization of the term we use.

Personally, I like Ambrose Bierce’s definition best: “Politics is a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. It is the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” It’s technically accurate while paying more than just lip service to the oxymoronic fate that has befallen the phrase “public service.”

You may well disagree with my idea, but if you consider the case of one Mr. Tim De Christopher, perhaps you’ll think otherwise. Oh, and when I refer to Tim’s case, I am not kidding—it’s The United States of America, Plaintiff, vs. Tim De Christopher, Defendant, Case #2:09cr00183DB. But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. Allow me to backtrack.

Back in December of last year, De Christopher was just your average environmentally active, 27 year-old economics major at the University of Utah. He had just completed a final exam when he was on his way to take part in an organized protest of an auction of oil and gas exploration leases offered by the Bureau of Land Management. Opponents of the proposed auction had two majors gripes with the proceeding: the amount of land involved was too broad in its scope, and the speed at which the auction had been put together virtually assured that the BLM wouldn’t be able to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s that are federally mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency in situations like this.

Not surprisingly, they also felt that this was the Bush Administration’s version of a Blue Light Special, because the lands in question were pristine parcels that abutted Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in the southern and eastern parts of Utah. These tracts of land were (warning: gratuitous Latin phrase alert!) sui generis, as in ‘one-of-a-kind.’ Though the BLM buckled to pressure from a raft of environmental groups and reduced the size of its initial offering, the auction went off as scheduled.

This was the scenario posed to De Christopher that morning. A nameless foot soldier in the fight to preserve what little is left of Mama Nature’s prime real estate, he had grown tired of the futility of the environmentalists’ efforts. It was a feeling that was palpable when he arrived that morning. It was an emotion that took on razor sharpness when contrasted with the efficacy De Christopher aspired to. Feeling the bottomless gap between his morals and his actions, De Christopher paused.

And then lighting struck…

In a fit of anti-authoritarian brio, De Christopher infiltrated the auction as a means of disrupting what he viewed to be not only a fraudulent sale, but one that would irretrievably damage national natural treasures.

Surprisingly for De Christopher, gaining access to the proceedings proved to be relatively easy. Consistent with the BLM’s haste in putting this auction together, they neglected to enforce the standard security measures typically required. De Christopher showed his driver’s license, filled out a small form, was given a bidder’s paddle, and escorted in. (Personally, I can’t believe they didn’t make him at least demonstrate the Vulcan death grip or something.)

Once inside, he witnessed the auction process. Then, he soon began actually bidding on parcels, driving up their costs merely by waving his bidder’s paddle. But because his mission was to save the land, not just raise the price of having a shot at drilling and exploration, he decided to bring his ‘A’ game—De Christopher was in it to win it.

Which is exactly what he did. He proceeded to win 13 bids, totaling 22,000 acres, at a cost of $1.8 million. Sensing something was amiss, he was detained by the authorities, who then quickly released him into the arms of a hungry media longing for its next morsel. From the outset, De Christopher copped to his actions, and even went so far as to admit that the only reason he had committed the fraudulent bids was to save the imperiled land.

Public support sprung up for Tim faster than an oil speculator at a hastily prepared sale of oil and gas leases. Within a very short time, he was able to raise $100,000 through his website, Bidder70.org, to cover the cost of the initial payment to the BLM for the leases in question, as well as for what was sure to involve prospective legal defense costs.

Then on February 4th, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar invalidated the oil and gas leases that had been auctioned off, which for all intents and purposes could arguably be construed as the government’s admission of “my bad.”

But keep your eye on the bouncing ball, folks, because remember, everything is political, and when everything is political anything can happen, which is exactly what transpired here. Though the leases in question were voided by the feds, the man who felled the oil-and-gas-industry Goliath with a bidder’s paddle and did so without destroying, defiling, or otherwise desecrating anything, unless you count the derailed locomotive of greed that was expecting uncontested whacks at the piñata placed so generously before them by the Bush administration, that guy was the butt of the federal government’s idea of an April Fool’s joke.

Because on April 1, 2009, Tim was indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah for two counts of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Act. (A lesser charge of wearing a flannel shirt to a government auction was considered but ultimately dropped.)

Let’s pause for a moment to review, shall we? The government conducts a highly questionable sale of oil and gas leases that it ultimately voids; yet later they decide to criminally prosecute the man who provided them the opportunity to reconsider and correct their reckless conduct by wielding a bidder’s paddle? (Paging Mr. Kafka, Mr. Franz Kafka!)

And then in a move that put the “crap” in craptacular, on April 3, the BLM levied an $81,000 assessment against Tim for the voided leases. And because that wasn’t surreal enough, they then withdrew the assessment a couple of months later.

Finally, on September 25 in a federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, a judge will hear the government’s motion to keep De Christopher from using what’s known as the necessity defense. This is a legal theory that claims he acted as he did out of the necessity of protecting the environment in the face of impending climate change. Basically, they don’t want a jury to hear about issues of protecting the environment and impending climate change. The government just wants the jury to know that Tim did what he did intentionally, with no regard for the context in which his decision was made. Why? Because if the jury hears those facts, they might actually find in Tim’s favor. And, God forbid, if they do that they may actually provide judicial notice of climate change as a matter of fact.
Oh.

Right about now you’re asking yourself “What’s that smell?” It’s not teen spirit, and it’s not napalm in the morning—it’s the stench of government in decay. And without going full-Ambrose Bierce on you, it is the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Now it’s safe to say that we as a nation have become used to diminished expectations. Even with the election of a man who is actually qualified to run the country, we know better than to expect much that even remotely approaches efficiency from our government and its agencies. But what we can’t condone is when our government is guilty of what in its best light looks like gross malfeasance, especially when they are given a chance to grant themselves a reprieve by a citizen who has the balls, heart, and spirit to act consonant with his moral compass, a device conspicuously absent from the government’s decision making process.

I have given up expecting bureaucracies like the BLM to actually do that which they are created to, which in this case is to manage federal energy sources in an environmentally sound way. (My italics.) What galls me most deeply is the wholesale lack of respect for resources present in this case. (Um, I don’t know whose italics those are.) And by resources, the untapped oil and gas that lies beneath the ground in Utah aren’t all I am referring to. I am talking about the very real, immeasurable and invaluable human resource of people like Tim De Christopher! (OK, that’s definitely my exclamation point.)

If we are ever going to extricate ourselves from the wringer we have wedged ourselves into, we need people like Tim De Christopher—inventive, committed, and compassionate—not in jail, his contributions to society neutralized while sapping limited resources by being incarcerated—but in the vanguard of the vital democracy we remember ourselves to be.

But De Christopher is just one guy. One extremely committed guy. And the funny thing is, before he infiltrated that auction and waved that paddle, he was a guy just like me. And just like you. And the momentum of that decision has resulted in the prospect for some real progress to be made in the corner of the political realm dealing with climate change via, of all things, the judicial branch.

It’s been said that two wrongs don’t make a right. This case proves an exception to that rule. The BLM failed in its responsibility to adhere to federally-imposed environmental guidelines before holding the auction. Tim, by his own admission, represented himself to be a qualified bidder, which he wasn’t. When the Department of the Interior voided the sale, the two negatives perpetrated by both parties multiplied to create a positive—the lands in question are safe for the time being. The decision to prosecute Tim is the perfect final touch for those who like a little closure with their lunacy. That Brett Tolman, the U.S. Attorney who is prosecuting this case, wants to participate in some perverse act of reverse-alchemy by attempting to spin political straw out of environmental gold is regrettable. Our focus now must be on what we can do to support Tim in this scenario.

Tim told me that what moved him to act as he did was the realization that he could actually handle serving time to save the imperiled lands. What he couldn’t live with was waking up ten years down the road, seeing those lands ransacked by the oil and gas industries, and live with the knowledge that he had the chance to do something about it and didn’t.

Well, we have a chance to endorse Tim right here, right now.

Go to www.Bidder70.org. Make a donation, write your representative. And if that leaves you feeling like you want to do more, then go to www.PeacefulUprising.org and really throw your oars in the water. And if that’s not enough, just ask yourself what it would take for you to align your morals with your actions. Nothing could be more political.

Michael Raysses is a writer, actor, and National Public Radio commentator; he lives in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at MichaelRaysses@hotmail.com. (Author’s note: no animals were harmed in the writing of this column.)

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