Climate activist Tim DeChristopher was released from a federal halfway house on April 21, just in time to speak out for environment justice at an Earth Day event in Salt Lake City, Utah. On July 26, 2011, DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison and received a $10,000 fine for false representation and violating the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. His crime? He bid on pristine Utah land that was being leased for oil and gas exploration with no intention to buy the land or drill on it. DeChristopher says he took an
“ethical, necessary, and direct action to protect our planet, our democracy, and my fellow human beings. My actions stopped what I believe was an illegal and certainly unethical auction. My motivation to act against this auction came from the exploitation of public lands, the lack of a transparent and participatory government, and the imminent danger of climate change.”
No one was hurt by DeChristoher’s action. He did not burn anything down or damage any property. He did not trespass on private land. He was not even blocking traffic. He merely bid on land he had no intention to buy. For engaging in a peaceful act of civil disobedience, he got two years in federal prison, while oil and gas executives continue to pillage the planet. His case exposes the utter hypocrisy of the legal system and the power of oil giants like BP and Chevron.
April 20 marked the third anniversary of the largest environmental disaster in US history. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, injured 17 and caused untold environmental destruction and a health crisis that continues to this day. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist, estimates that up to five million people in the Gulf were exposed to either acute or intermediate levels of oil at dangerous levels.
And yet, the disaster has been largely forgotten. The media have moved on. What explains the silence? “BP mounted a cover-up that concealed the full extent of its crimes from public view,” writes environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard in Newsweek.
“This cover-up prevented the media and therefore the public from knowing – and above all, seeing – just how much oil was gushing into the gulf. The disaster appeared much less extensive and destructive than it actually was. BP declined to comment for this article.”
Last year, BP pled guilty on 14 counts in a legal settlement with the US Department of Justice, which included a $4.5bn fine, the largest fine ever levied against a corporation in US history. Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, called it “a pathetic slap on the wrist” for “the largest corporate crime in US history”.
Then there is Chevron. On August 6, 2012, a massive fire and explosion at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, sent 15,000 residents to the hospital and injured several workers. On the night after the explosion, local citizens, exposed to constant pollution from the refinery, gathered at a town hall meeting to express their outrage. “Why should any community have to suffer from any corporation that is destroying the health and the life of the community?” asked Richmond resident Ken Yale. “Shut it down.”
According to an investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board, Chevron failed to act upon six recommendations over 10 years to replace and update a corroded pipeline. Executives at these multinationals know they will never face jail time for preventable explosions, so why spend money on something as trivial as safety measures?
California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration slapped Chevron on the wrist with a pitiful $1m fine after citing the company with 25 workplace-safety violations. Chevron, the second-largest US oil producer, recently said its fourth-quarter net income rose to $7.2bn from $5.1bn last year. The total compensation package for Chevron CEO John Watson was $32.2m, a 30 percent increase from 2011.
The message is clear. When your refinery explodes, blankets the San Francisco Bay Area with toxic smoke and sickens 15,000 people, you get a $7.5m raise. When you bid on land to make a statement about the danger and destruction of drilling, you go to federal prison.
My motivation to act against this auction came from the exploitation of public lands, the lack of a transparent and participatory government, and the imminent danger of climate change.
Here is some background on the auction itself. On December 19, 2008, DeChristopher finished his final economy exam at the University of Utah and took a bus to downtown Salt Lake City to protest the lease of land in Utah’s stunning red rock country. Some of that land was just five miles from the state’s national parks and monuments.
Rather than protesting the sale from outside, DeChristopher decided to go inside to scream and shout and get kicked out. Instead, he was asked if he would like to be a bidder. He successfully bid nearly $2m on 22,000 acres of land. He also drove up the price of the bids from $5 to $15 an acre to $100 to $500 an acre. After “winning” the land, DeChristopher was asked to pay 10 percent of the total bid. When he said he did not have the money, he was interrogated for three hours.
We do not hear much about these auctions because they are rarely covered in the media. According to Patrick Shea, DeChristopher’s lawyer and former director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under President Bill Clinton, the government agency holds as many as 12 oil and gas land auctions a year.
The auction DeChristopher attended took place as the Bush administration was about to vacate the White House. As a parting gift to Big Oil, the BLM failed to conduct an environmental analysis or consult with the National Park Service.
In Bidder 70, a documentary about DeChristopher’s action, Dennis Willis, a BLM manager in Utah who worked for the agency for 30 years, said he has “been in meetings with oil and gas companies that have come in and said, ‘We own the White House. You will do it our way'”. BLM and Department of Interior officials declined to be interviewed for Bidder 70, according to filmmakers Beth and George Gage.
Even though President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ultimately invalidated the leases, the US Attorney’s office cracked down hard on DeChristopher to send a strong message to environmental activists. Do not even think of taking a similar action. If you do, we will go after you and throw you in federal prison.
The Attorney’s office says it went after DeChristopher because he “made false statements during the bidding process” and had no intention to pay for the land or drill on it. He could have received up to 10 years in prison and a $1.5m fine.
President Obama, who, according to Beth and George Gage was never asked about DeChristopher’s case by the media, could have given DeChristopher a lighter sentence or made him do community service, but his attorney Patrick Shea says too much was at stake. The President had two choices. Alienate environmentalists or get slammed by Big Oil’s media and propaganda machine for not going after a lawbreaker. He chose to alienate his environmental base. It is easier to anger your friends than your foes.
In Bidder 70, we learn that a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute knew DeChristopher was being indicted before anyone on his legal team. He is free to finally speak, but remains on three years of probation.
On July 26, 2011, he made the following statement to the court and the judge who sentenced him to prison:
“I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of non-violent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM. You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter: @roseaguilar