Agency auctions off moral high ground

Prof C Explains
4 min readDec 30, 2008

by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Two weeks ago, the Bureau of Land Management — acting on orders from the Bush administration — rushed to auction off the drilling rights to nearly 150,000 acres of Utah wilderness adjacent to the Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

In fact, rushed is probably an understatement: The BLM was in such a hurry to get drilling rights transferred to the private sector that it left no time for public comment, no time for the local businesses dependent on parkland tourists to speak to the effect of drilling on their enterprises and certainly no time for vetting the bidders at the auction. After all, the bidders would all be the usual suspects from the oil and gas industry — the same folks who were instructing the BLM on which acres to auction.

Enter Tim DeChristopher, an economics student at the University of Utah. Like many others, DeChristopher was disgusted by this last-minute giveaway of public resources to private industry. But unlike others, DeChristopher had the courage to do something about it.

After finishing his last semester final, Tim drove to the auction, walked past the assembled protesters, grabbed an auction paddle and started bidding. Almost immediately, the other bidders and the BLM knew something was wrong. DeChristopher was identified as being “unfamiliar” and “bidding in an unusual fashion.”

Normally, collusion between the bidders from the oil industry ensures that there are few bidders for each parcel, keeping competition and prices low. Such collusion is apparently legal and standard practice. But DeChristopher was bidding on several parcels and increasing the selling price. How unusual, indeed!

Complaints from the other bidders caused the BLM to arrest DeChristopher as a nuisance bidder. “The federal officials who took me into custody said that I cost the oil companies in the room hundreds of thousands of dollars,” DeChristopher commented after his arrest.

At the auction, DeChristopher won the drilling rights for several parcels that, as you might suspect, he can’t afford to pay for on a student income. The Center for Water Advocacy has since established a legal defense fund for DeChristopher, which will either help pay for parcels that DeChristopher won or for his legal fees if indicted on federal charges (see



Prof C Explains

J Scott Christianson: UM Teaching Prof, Technologist & Entrepreneur. Connect with me here: