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July 25, 2011

Tim DeChristopher Is an Activist, Not a Criminal

Statement of Allison Fisher, Outreach Director, Public Citizen’s Energy Program

Note: In 2008, environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, then a student at the University of Utah, posed as a bidder at BLM oil and gas lease auction and purchased 22,000 acres of land costing approximately $1.8 million – which he had no intention of paying. He was convicted in March of making a false statement and violating a federal onshore oil and gas lease act. Now he could face up to 10 years in jail, as well as $750,000 in fines. His sentencing is scheduled for Tuesday, July 26. Public Citizen will be participating in a solidarity rally and vigil for Tim DeChristopher organized by local activists from noon-1 p.m. Tuesday at the U.S. District Courthouse, 300 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C.

Is trying to protect the environment a crime? When large corporations escape punishment for destroying the environment and harming their workers, Tim DeChristopher’s trial looks all the more unjust.

DeChristopher saw the auction as an attack on the nation’s irreplaceable public land and wanted to save the southern Utah property from potential drilling. He hoped that if he delayed the auction, the leases might be reconsidered by the then-incoming Obama administration.

DeChristopher’s bidding was an act of resistance by a concerned citizen. No individuals were harmed, and DeChristopher even offered to pay the government for his winning bids, even though the federal auction was later deemed illegitimate.

Now, a well-intentioned environmental activist could face jail time. While the actions of major corporations like Massey Energy and BP have led to vast environmental damages, safety hazards and even deaths, these companies never seem to get the punishment they deserve. When compared to the leniency afforded corporate polluters, his potential sentence seems unreasonably severe. 

Massey’s April 2010 mine explosion killed 29 miners, but the company maneuvered out of lawsuits with only paying fines. No one went to jail.

Similarly, the BP oil disaster killed 11 men, injured 17 others, contaminated hundreds of miles of coastline, shut much of the Gulf down to fishing and caused untold environmental damage. BP still does not face any criminal charge. No one has gone to jail.

In this light, DeChristopher’s potential sentence seems even more outrageous. Here we have an environmental activist trying peacefully to protect Utah public land by delaying its sale. Nobody was killed. Nobody was hurt. No damage was done.

While all too often individuals remain powerless in a corporate world, this should not be fate of Tim DeChristopher.
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