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

DeChristopher’s act was definitely not legal – auction bidders must have the means to pay for their winnings – but was it ethical?

Let’s back up for a minute and assume that the hurried sale of drilling rights in public lands is a good idea. If so, why aren’t our public officials trying to get the best price for the public resources being offered? When DeChristopher drove up the price of the oil leases, the oil companies purchased the drilling rights despite the higher prices, indicating that these resources have a much higher value than the prices for which they have been selling.

The BLM is now giving those companies that feel they “paid too much” 30 days to retract their bids, after which the BLM will attempt to hold a new auction for the returned parcels. Instead of setting minimum bids to reflect the true value of these public resources, the BLM is offering a do-over so the oil and gas industry can get the lowest price possible.

The focus should not be the ethics of one man’s behavior but the ethics of those charged with protecting the public interest.

Is it ethical for the BLM to betray the public trust by selling rights to our public lands for much less than they are worth? Is it ethical for the BLM to rush to hold such an auction when it knows that the bidders are colluding to keep competition low? Is it ethical for our democratically elected president to use his authority to bypass public input and interest to benefit a selected group of private industries in the waning days of his administration?

The BLM’s servitude to the wishes of private industry is just one example of a huge national problem: the takeover and use of our government to benefit private interest. I firmly believe in capitalism as the best way to run an economy – I have been making my living for the past 10 years by running my own business. But I also believe that a democracy is the best way to run a government that represents and protects the public interest. Mixing the two is not healthy for either, nor is it ethical.

Congratulations to DeChristopher for having the cojones to expose this dishonorable activity. Shame on the oil and gas industry for trying to take public resources in a last-minute fire sale. And shame on the Bush administration and the BLM for misusing their power and the trust placed in them.