Tim DeChristopher, a Utah economics student, is – for now – the proud possessor of the obligation to buy drilling rights from the federal government on 13 tracts of land he bid on at a recent Bureau of Land Management action. DeChristopher now owes Uncle Sam $1.8M with no prospects of being able to pay up. Did he take his environmentalism up a notch or did he commit a fraudulent act by bidding on properties he had no intention of buying?
In my opinion it’s both, with the emphasis on the latter. This young man may not face criminal proceedings as a result of his actions but he should be made aware that they are a very real possibility and that a repeat of last month’s farce will result in the application of applicable law.
Why? First, DeChristopher entered into a contractual obligation to the federal government with no ability or intent to meet that obligation.
Second, he fraudulently caused other bidders to pay more for their drilling rights that they ought to as a result of his bids that he had no intention of backing up.
As an economics major DeChristopher is undoubtedly aware of financial impact his actions had on other bidders. And make no mistake, DeChristopher is a full-on green activist:
"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.
While environmental activism can be a noble cause, it is illegal to deliberately enter financial agreements with another party while intending to default on one’s obligations. The law is quite clear on this subject if I’m not mistaken, and rightfully so. The lawful government has decided to auction these drilling rights and DeChristopher, while within his rights to protest the sale, had no right to interfere without intending to complete the lease.
Environmental advocates like DeChristopher who want to preserve these lands in their pristine state can and should participate in government auctions for drilling rights. This is a legitimate approach to gaining control over the use of public land – if they pay up.
I understand that not everyone will agree. What of it? On one hand, those who think DeChristopher is in the right can simply be dismissed. They have a process that they must go through to promote that point of view, namely to get fraud laws changed. Not going to happen.
On the other hand, there is a reasonable line of thinking that goes something like this: The essential purpose of government auctions is to release public land for the purpose of mineral exploration and extraction; therefore, anything that interferes with that outcome is undesirable.
(Certainly the BLM wants to get the current market rate for the leases it auctions but that’s only a desired condition of the outcome, not the outcome itself.)
Therefore, environmentalists who interfere with government auctions of mineral leases are in fact thwarting the government by bidding even if they were to follow through and pay the leases in full.
I do have a certain empathy for that viewpoint. However, at the end of the day an auction for access to public lands is about allocating public lands to the most beneficial use possible. The auction itself is merely a mechanism for approximating that benefit. So if environmentalists put their cash on the barrel head and purchase the drilling rights on public lands, so be it. But that’s what they need to do if they’re going to participate in the process with the rest of the grownups.