Why is Obama prosecuting Tim DeChristopher, the gas-lease pranker?

  • Published on February 28th, 2011

You may have heard the story: In the waning days of the Bush administration, the Interior Department tried to rush through a bunch of gas leases on public land. They knew the Obama admin wouldn’t allow them, so they tried to get them locked down, contractually, by holding an auction.

Update: The jury found Tim guilty of two felony counts. Not surprising, since the judge refused to allow him to make any real defense. See the story: Jury finds DeChristopher guilty of fraud for blocking drilling next to national parks

A student climate change activist, Tim DeChristopher, went to the auction. As Grist reports, “DeChristopher hadn’t planned what he was going to do that day when he arrived directly after a class. The auctioneers asked if he would like to be a bidder. Thinking on his feet, he said, ‘Yes, I would’.”

Like a sheep in wolf’s clothing, he outbid the oil barons and scored 22,500 acres of primo parcels.

Of course, he didn’t have the $1.8 million to pay for them. Which was fine by him – he didn’t want to drill for gas, he just wanted to ensure that the OTHER guys didn’t get to drill for gas either, so it worked out just fine. And it’s not like this hasn’t happened before – over the years more than 25 bidders have discovered they didn’t actually have the finances to pay up when the time came, and have walked away from their obligations. That’s just business.

But apparently the Justice Department treats activist kids differently from oil companies – who knew? They decided to prosecute DeChristopher for twin felonies under an obscure, rarely-used law. So now he’s facing 10 years in the slammer. The trial starts today in Salt Lake City.

Don’t just sit there – do something!

How insane is this prosecution?

The 77 leases were for areas near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. They may as well have been drilling for oil in the National Gallery or the Kennedy Center.

Once Obama took office, his Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, invalidated the leases and handed back the oil companies’ money.

“In the last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases near some of our nation’s most precious landscapes in Utah,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters when he invalidated the leases. ““We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes and cultural resources.”

That’s right. DeChristopher is being prosecuted for disrupting a sale that didn’t happen, and for failing to pay money he would have gotten back anyway. And the judge in the case has already ruled that he can’t use that fact as a defense, or the fact that the leases would have accelerated global warming (“necessity defense”), or the fact that this is a politically-motived prosecution, since the government didn’t prosecute the oil guys who bid on leases and then failed to pay.

Here’s where you come in .

Hundreds gathered in Salt Lake City this past weekend to organize – from Greenpeace350.orgRuckus SocietyRainforest Action Network and dozens more. Matt Leonard at It’s Getting Hot In Here is on the scene, and reports how excited everyone is at the outpouring of support:

[Tim] reflected on the daunting sound of “United States v Tim DeChristopher”. As Tim put it – “300 million to 1 is a little intimidating – those aren’t good odds”. But we know those numbers aren’t true. Millions of people support what Tim did, and support a world based on justice and sustainability. Millions of people are demanding we confront the climate crisis. And most importantly, Tim isn’t alone.

While he admitted confronting the climate crisis is daunting, Tim said he realized that through the past 2 years of telling his story; of organizing with Peaceful Uprising; and working with the international climate movement; – he wasn’t alone. He realized how many people supported what he did. He realized how the movement for climate justice has taking action, and shutting down coal plants, and winning victories for people and planet.  He saw how the movement grows every time we share our stories, every time we show another person our joy and resolve, and most importantly – every time we take an action in the name of justice.

As he closed his speech – he made the simple, but telling observation: “Every day, our odds are getting better”.Truer words have not been spoken.

What YOU can do

Tim is NOT alone. He has big-name activists like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Robert Redford, and Terry Tempest Williams supporting him. Actress Darrly Hannah and Peter Yarrow (of ’60s folks group Peter, Paul and Mary) are outside the courthouse today.

But that’s not enough – you need to make YOUR voice heard, too.

“The world will be watching,” Tim says. “They’re looking to see how you react when I’m prosecuted and when I’m likely convicted and sent to prison. … The world is watching because they want to see if you’re going to back down.”

More on the Trail of Tim DeChristopher:

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.


  • While I agree with his cause, I don’t understand the controversy over this guy’s punishment. He committed fraud, with intent, and that’s what separates him from the supposed 25 other people. Was his conviction politically motivated? You bet, but so was Tim DeChristopher’s intentions which lead to his fraud.

    They could have actually charged him with many other crimes.

    Labeling him a prankster doesn’t change anything. Sure, he didn’t cause 1.8 million dollars in damage, but his fraud did cause a large number in financial damages to the auction. A prank is something that is done in jest, he acted for a cause and meant to harm the auction. Yeah, those auctions suck, but this is not the way to protest. The cause being just does not mean that the means is permissible. That is because this is not one of those cases where the law (auction fraud) is unjust. If the law was unjust, then by all means break the law in protest of the law.

    • Just a reminder: He did it because he considered the auction itself fraudulent and illegal.
      He was later joined in that opinion by a judge and the Department of the Interior, both of which invalidated the auction and returned payments to the winning bidders. So ultimately nobody was harmed, right? (And don’t get me started on the oil companies that complained that they got their bids jacked up to more than $300 an acre for leases that would win them tens of millions of dollars – that’s kinda of fraudulent in itself, don’t you think?)
      Crimes tend to be judged on a sliding scale, not a black and white one – that’s why you didn’t get arrested or ticketed last time you crossed the street against a light. Jaywalking is a crime, too, but we only enforce it in extraordinary circumstances.
      Considering the amount of fraud that transpired in the economic meltdown – fraud for which no-one, to date, has been punished – the government could have chosen to say “This was fraud, but a minor one, in service to a good cause, and ultimately nobody was harmed.”
      Instead, they threw the book at him.

      • I think the larger picture here is that you can’t reasonably support this tactic in this case and not consider all the alternative applications. Calling otherwise criminal fraud an acceptable avenue of political protest among other things would bring the IRS to a complete standstill. (Some of us may like that, but it would make the continuing operation of the country pretty complicated.) I do think Tim should pretty much get a pass at sentencing time, in the spirit of letting the punishment fit the crime. But, I’m not seeing anything here that makes me think we need to subvert the legal process.

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