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.