Climate Injustice in Utah

  • Share
  • Read Later

I’m in Cameroon right now, working on a health story with the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (update: it’s now just GVF) and the viral ecologist Nathan Wolfe. I’ve been out of email and cell contact the past few days—hence the lack of blogging—and even now Internet contact is dicey. But while the signal’s strong I wanted to note the true injustice that occurred in a federal courtroom in Utah yesterday. Tim DeChristopher, a 29-year-old environmental activist and college student, was sentenced to two years in prison for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction in 2008 as a protest over U.S. energy and oil policy.

I first wrote about DeChristopher’s act of civil disobedience in 2009, when I interviewed him. (DeChristopher walked into a federal lease auction for oil and gas exploration and bid on leases with the intention of driving up the price of lots and disrupting the auction, eventually pledging more than $1 million—which the former wilderness guide clearly did not have.) This is what I had to say earlier this year when DeChristopher was convicted of failing to make good on those auction bids:

There’s no doubt that DeChristopher broke the law. But that doesn’t mean that what transpired in a Salt Lake City courtroom on March 3 bore any resemblance to justice.

Actually, I will tell you what I think about this case.

I think it’s a crime. And if DeChristopher is actually sent to jail, it will be an obscenity.

Well, DeChristopher is going to jail, though for less than the 10-year maximum sentence he could have faced. But as Jeff Goodell wrote in Rolling Stone today, that doesn’t make the sentence any less morally insane:

And instead of underscoring the importance of the rule of law, the sentencing of DeChristopher reveals just how perverse and fossil fuel friendly our legal system really is.  For climate activists, this is a Rosa Parks moment.  Or should be.

As U.S. District Judge Dee Benson pointed out, DeChristopher did break the law—something the activist freely admitted—and his actions cost other, legitimate bidders hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs. But it’s hard to see this sentence as just when, for example, there have yet to be any criminal charges filed over last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which spilled millions of gallons of crude and led to the deaths of 11 crewmen onboard the Deepwater Horizon. Nor have prosecutors gone after the Wall Street masterminds who helped cause the 2008 financial meltdown.

Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of the mortgage company Countrywide Financial, isn’t going to jail, even though he made statements in private emails indicating that he knew his business was faulty. Thousands of people lost their homes, and the cost to the economy was enormous. Yet Mozilo is walking free today, and DeChristopher—unless he can successfully appeal—will be headed to jail. That’s justice?

When an act of civil disobedience to disrupt an energy sale—one later invalidated by the federal government—earns someone a harsher punishment than helping to bring down the economy of the United States, that’s not justice. That’s insane.