A Utah college student who might have cost the oil companies nearly $1 million by monkey-wrenching a recent lease auction spoke Wednesday at the Santy Auditorium about civil disobedience in the name of the environment.
Tim DeChristopher just wanted to disrupt the petroleum lease sale the Bureau of Land Management conducted in December.
"When I walked inside they said, 'Hi, are you here to be a bidder?' And I said, 'Well, yes I am,'" said DeChristopher speaking at this week's Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival in Park City. "I got inside that auction room and saw that I could have a pretty huge impact by bidding and driving up those prices so that those leases reflected more globally the real cost of developing oil."
In an interview, DeChristopher complained the auction lacked "transparent, participatory government." "It showed a commitment to sucking the last drop of oil out of the planet, and that leaves no future," DeChristopher said.
So he sabotaged the auction. "I'd been an environmentalist for a long time, and had done all the things we're all supposed to do as environmentalists, but it was really about a year ago that it firmly sunk into me that my efforts, and the efforts of countless others for decades, weren't enough," DeChristopher said.
In 30 minutes his bidding cost petroleum companies about $750,000 before auction officials caught on, DeChristopher said. "I saw this opportunity to have a big impact, and saw the potential to protect this land, and the potential to keep the oil in the ground, and if I turned my back on that and did nothing, could I live with that?" he said. "No, I couldn't live that."
Cheryl Fox is the executive director of the Summit Land Conservancy, which sponsored this week's film event.
"He's our hero," Fox said about DeChristopher in an interview at the festival. "He took some definitive action to protect Utah."
Meanwhile, donations this week from filmgoers will help preserve open space in Summit County, Fox stressed.
Conservation easements the group monitors keep development off land critical to Park City's resort economy, she said.
"Individuals can take action and they can change the way we do things," Fox said.
But the economic downturn is causing donors to give less, she said. "They're still writing checks but the checks are not as large as they used to be There will definitely be some (buying) opportunities because of the downturn in the market and because of how attractive cash is right now," Fox said. "If my organization doesn't have the capacity to step up to these opportunities, they're going to slip through our fingers, and that will be heartbreaking."
In 10 years Summit Land Conservancy has helped protect about 2,000 acres in western Summit County. "When you're fighting for any cause, I think cynicism is your greatest enemy," Fox said. "When we got started there were a lot of people saying there is no way we would be able to protect any land. It's all too expensive and landowners don't want to talk to you."
But another 1,700 acres could be preserved in the Snyderville Basin, Henefer and Kamas in 2009, she explained.
"You find the common ground and then you protect the common ground if you can," Fox said about negotiations with landowners. "If we buy a conservation easement we're buying an interest in the property from a landowner who is either a developer who wants to really ensure the open-space values of his development or long-time farmers or ranchers who want to protect their heritage."