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SALT LAKE CITY -- Environmentalists treat him like a hero, but now he faces the possibility of 10 years in federal prison.
A federal grand jury indicted environmental activist Tim DeChristopher Wednesday on two felony counts for disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases.
The indictment alleges DeChristopher schemed to defeat the purpose of that act and knowingly interfered with a competitive bidding process. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
DeChristopher says he was surprised he was charged. "I had hoped that they would see that there was some ethical justifications and, certainly, some positive results because of them," he said.
From the day in December he disrupted a BLM auction for oil and gas leases, DeChristopher said he was willing to go to jail. "I think a trial is going to be a great opportunity to address the moral imperative of protecting a livable future for our children," he said.
DeChristopher registered for the BLM auction and bid on leases he never intended to pay for, leases that had become controversial because they were near national parks and wilderness areas.
Technically, DeChristopher is charged with violating federal laws for auctions. He's accused of misrepresenting himself as a bona fide bidder.
"This case is about facts and the law, not political positions," said Brett Tolman, U.S. Attorney for Utah. "There are ways to express viewpoints and to press for change without violating the law."
After the auction disruption, Rep. Mike Noel of Kanab sponsored a bill that makes it a state crime to bid at a land-lease auction with no intent to pay. On the phone Wednesday night, Noel told KSL 5 News DeChristopher "ought to be prosecuted for stealing money from the state of Utah and the school kids of Utah."
Money from the leases goes to the state's school fund. DeChristopher and his attorneys contend no money was lost because the bids were invalidated.
The environmental activist sees this as a fight against climate change and continued fossil fuel exploration and use. "If we stay on that path, I simply don't have a livable future, and no one my generation or younger has a bright future to look forward to," DeChristopher said.
The Bush-era leases DeChristopher tried to block have already been repudiated by the new Obama administration. Regardless, the U.S. attorney calls the disruption illegal.