DeChristopher case begs question: What if enviros were allowed to bid on oil leases?

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Friday, July 29, 2011

By now you’ve probably heard the story of Tim DeChristopher, the 27-year-old activist who single-handedly shut down an entire Bureau of Land Management auction back in December 2008. DeChristopher, then a student at the University of Utah, snuck into the oil and gas leasing sale, posed as a bidder, and outbid developers on 22,500 acres of federal lands in southern Utah.

Almost overnight, he became an environmental folk hero, an eco-saboteur straight from an Edward Abbey novel. Although he was arrested, convicted for making false statements, and sentenced on Tuesday to 2 years in prison, his monkey wrenching worked. The incoming Obama administration cancelled the auction’s results and refused to reschedule the sale.

So, mission accomplished, right? DeChristopher stood up to a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to open federal lands for drilling. Where others stood by, DeChristopher took action. And although it will land him in prison, it saved 150,000 acres of public land from fossil fuel development.

But how long will it remain protected? The incoming Obama administration, far less eager than its predecessor to open sensitive federal lands to drilling, was the crucial element in DeChristopher’s success. The lands could easily be reopened for drilling under future administrations. If monkey-wrench activism relies on fortunate shifts in political control, its long-term effectiveness is limited.

Here’s another idea: What if instead of landing him in jail, DeChristopher’s bidding was welcomed and encouraged? What if his bids were a real threat to energy developers that currently receive public lands at a discount? What if environmentalists were allowed to bid for federal land leases, win them, and protect them from development?

It’s a question no one is asking, but it’s an important one. BLM leases are often sold with little competition. What competition exists comes from other oil companies and reflects only the commodity — not the environmental — value of the land. While environmentalists can formally protest proposed lease sales, these rarely prevent drilling from occurring.

So why aren’t environmentalists bidding for leases? Part of the answer is that they can’t. The government requires leaseholders to develop their parcels, and if drilling does not occur within a certain timeframe, the lease can be cancelled by the BLM. This effectively prohibits environmentalists from holding and retiring important swaths of public land, even if they are the highest bidders.

The other part of the answer is that the political process, rather than a competitive market process, occasionally pays off for traditional environmentalism. The 1970s environmental regulatory era, for instance, was the product of a political climate favorable to environmental sentiment. Given the proper alliances, politics can be a close friend to environmentalists.

But, of course, politics can also be the environment’s biggest enemy. The very auction DeChristopher thwarted was a rushed political maneuver by the Bush administration and bypassed the usual environmental review procedure. It’s an all-too-common reminder of the limitations of political environmentalism — its success ebbs and flows with each passing administration.

Opening lease auctions to environmental groups has an important advantage over politics or monkey wrenching: Lands can be protected regardless of the political winds in Washington. Leases are held for a decade or more and constitute a formal right to the resource — out of reach from future political whims.

But could environmental groups afford to compete? Consider some of the allotments DeChristopher won. One of the first was a parcel near Moab that went for $2.25 per acre, or $500 total. While others were considerably higher, the average price was $80 per acre, totaling 22,500 acres at $1.8 million. This is a substantial amount, but hardly out of the reach of major environmental groups.

When word got out about DeChristopher’s “winnings,” donations poured in. Within a few days, supporters had raised enough for the $45,000 down payment on the land. But when it came time to submit the payment for the land, the BLM refused to accept it.

Since then, DeChristopher has focused his efforts more on climate justice than open auctions. He founded Peaceful Uprising, a group dedicated to pursuing climate action through civil disobedience. The message is inspiring, but it relies on politics to exact change. Open and fair lease auctions, by contrast, could turn passionate rhetoric into real results for climate action, independent of the political reality.

If you think such competition between environmentalists and industry is far-fetched, consider state-owned lands. States such as Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico have allowed environmental groups to bid for leases, and win them, on state trusts lands, which are often developed to provide revenue for schools. Instead of developing their leases, however, these groups hold them for non-consumptive, conservation purposes.

After pressure from local environmental groups and a federal court ruling, Idaho amended its rules in 2009 to allow conservationists to lease state grazing lands. Under the new rules, ranchers—who often pay as little as $250 annually to lease a 400-acre parcel—are no longer able to obtain below-market leases in no-competition bids. Competition from environmental groups forces ranchers to consider the environmental values of their leases.

On federal lands, oil companies have little reason to consider such values, a fact that DeChristopher recognized. The morning before he bid in the auction, he took a final exam in an economics class. One question asked whether the auction taking place in Utah would reflect the true value of the land if the only bidders were from the oil and gas industry. It was a question that motivated him to act later that day.

It’s not too late to act to change the way our federal lands are leased. The action taken by Tim DeChristopher should be legal and encouraged, but it isn’t. Federal leasing rules need to change to allow environmentalists to participate and to hold leases without developing them. While open auctions are not a silver bullet, they can be an effective and secure means of protecting important federal lands.

Let’s not stand by while the status quo continues on federal lands. Let’s free up the auctions and prevent oil and gas developers from doing our bidding for us.

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Shawn Regan is a research fellow at PERC. He holds a M.S. in Applied Economics from Montana State University and degrees in economics and environmental science from Berry College. He is also a visiting fellow at the Breakthrough Institute. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, High Country News, Reason, Regulation, Grist, and...
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