SALT LAKE CITY – Climate change activist Tim DeChristopher will spend the next two years in a low-security prison in Littleton, Colo., after he was sentenced Tuesday afternoon in a Salt Lake City federal courthouse for placing bogus bids in a 2008 federal oil and gas lease auction. The sentence sparked outrage by supporters that lead to the arrest of more than two dozen protesters.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson handed down the punishment, it seems, not because of what DeChristopher did in 2008, but rather for his continued defiance. DeChristopher made statements during and after his trial emphasizing his belief that his act, and future acts of civil disobedience, are needed to fight climate change. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Benson noted one of the speeches DeChristopher gave after his conviction, in which he asked others to continue the fight against climate change.
If not for that “continuing trail of statements,” Benson said in The Tribune report, he might not have faced prison time. “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad,” Benson said.
DeChristopher could have been sentence to 10 years in prison.
In his statement to the court, DeChristopher, 29, emphasized the importance of civil disobedience “in bringing the rule of law closer to our shared sense of justice.” He went on to say he has openly called for nonviolent civil disobedience against mountaintop removal in his home state of West Virginia. He invoked an investigation that found Massey Energy had been cited with 62,923 violations in the ten years prior to the disaster that killed 29 people last year. The investigation, he said, also revealed that Massey paid for almost none of those violations because the company provided millions of dollars worth of campaign contributions that elected most of the appeals court judges in the state.
“I actually have great respect for the rule of law, because I see what happens when it doesn’t exist, as is the case with the fossil fuel industry,” DeChristopher told the court. “When a corrupted government is no longer willing to uphold the rule of law, I advocate that citizens step up to that responsibility. This is really the heart of what this case is about. The rule of law is dependent upon a government that is willing to abide by the law.
“Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law.”
DeChristopher was convicted by a 12-member jury last March on two felonies for placing false bids in the 2008 Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction. He falsely bid $1.8 million for parcels of land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks as well as drove up bidding on other parcels, with no intention of paying.
Environmentalists believe that the oil and gas lease auction, which was held in December, was a last-minute effort to by the Bush Administration to offer up lands to oil and gas companies before the Obama Administration took office. Indeed, Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar immediately shelved the lease parcels in February 2009.
Despite Salazar’s decision to take the contested parcels off the table, DeChristopher was indicted on April 1, 2009, for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. At the trial, Judge Benson refused to allow DeChristopher to argue that he tried to sabotage the auction as an act of civil disobedience aimed to stop climate change. DeChristopher had also wanted to argue that the auction itself was illegitimate.
“Despite my strong disagreements with the court about the constitutional basis for the limits on my defense, while I was in this courtroom I respected the authority of the court,” DeChristopher told the court this week. “Whether I agreed with them or not, I abided by the restrictions that you put on me and my legal team. I never attempted to ‘taint’ the jury… by sharing any of the relevant facts about the auction in question that the court had decided were off limits. I didn’t burst out and tell the jury that I successfully raised the down payment and offered it to the BLM. I didn’t let the jury know that the auction was later reversed because it was illegitimate in the first place.
“To this day I still think I should have had the right to do so, but disagreement with the law should not be confused with disrespect for the law.”
After the sentence was handed down on Tuesday, Benson dismissed a request by DeChristopher’s defense team for a later surrender date and ordered him immediately into U.S. Marshals’ custody.
Outside the downtown courthouse, demonstrators, who have been vocal throughout DeChristopher’s trial and sentencing, became angry at the prison sentence. Many circled together and stopped traffic during the rush-hour commute and even blocked a TRAX train. Police arrested 26 people during the disruptive demonstration.
Judge Benson, according to The Tribune, recommended that DeChristopher go to the low-security prison in Littleton, Colo. DeChristopher was also fined $10,000 but Benson ordered no restitution for what prosecutors said were hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses to energy companies at the lease sale.
To view the full text of DeChristopher’s statement, visit peacefuluprising.org.