Environmentalist Creates Uproar at Oil-Lease Auction by Running Up Prices

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Instead of joining his protester friends on the snowy sidewalk outside the Bureau of Land Management office in Salt Lake City, Tim DeChristopher took a seat inside. In a room milling with oil and gas men who knew one another by sight, he was the unknown in a red parka, registering as a bidder in an auction for the rights to drill on 149,000 acres of federal land. DeChristopher was handed a red paddle bearing the number 70.

Half an hour later, he was raising it.

"I leaned forward to one of my colleagues and said, 'This guy behind us is just running up the prices,' " said David Terry, a Salt Lake City oil-land man who routinely attends the BLM auctions. "And my friend said, 'Yeah, he's going to get stuck with a tract.' "

The University of Utah economics student got stuck with 13. Promising the federal government $1.8 million he does not have, DeChristopher emerged holding leases on 22,000 acres in the scenic southeast corner of Utah.

He might have gone home with more had federal agents not led him out of the room after he secured the rights to a dozen parcels in a row, finally just holding his paddle over his head, even between offers. The U.S. attorney is considering charges that a spokeswoman declined to specify.

Even before DeChristopher subverted the proceedings, the Dec. 19 auction sized up as one of the most controversial during the Bush administration, whose policies critics have characterized as a bonanza for oil and gas extraction on public land. Opponents of the policies said the 35,000 drilling permits issued over the past eight years reflected the boom in petroleum prices and the administration's zeal to accommodate the oil and gas industry, even on public lands deemed "special" because of their beauty or fragility.

"This whole business of 'Drill, baby, drill' totally ignored the fact that we are a well-drilled country," said Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society, noting that by the count of the oil-field services company Baker Hughes, more drill rigs are operating inside the United States than in the rest of the world combined. "BLM's oil and gas program has been just out of control."

The parcels that DeChristopher snapped up stand near two national parks and a national monument that environmentalists and the National Park Service warned might be endangered by drilling. The outrage, which rivaled the outcry over the BLM decision to lease atop Colorado's majestic Roan Plateau, was aggravated by the timing: The agency announced the Utah auction on Nov. 4 -- Election Day. Environmental groups answered with administrative filings and news conferences, including a National Press Club event featuring Robert Redford.

DeChristopher wanted to do more.

"I've been an environmentalist for pretty much all my life and done all the things that you're supposed to do that are supposed to lead toward change," DeChristopher said, accounting for action that, as he tells it, surprised even him. "I've marched and held signs. I've volunteered in national parks. I've written letters and signed petitions. I've sat down with my congressman, Jim Matheson, for a long time.

"Ultimately, I felt like those things were only mildly effective. And it was having a very tiny effect on a very large problem."

The guerrilla bidding did not go down well with the oil and gas regulars. The companies recommend parcels for the BLM to sell and can hold them for decades if they prevail at the quarterly auctions.

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