An environmental activist tainted an auction of oil and gas drilling leases Friday by bidding up parcels of land by hundreds of thousands of dollars without any intention of paying for them, a federal official said.
The process was thrown into chaos and the bidding halted for a time before the sale of 132 parcels covering 164,000 acres was concluded.
"He's tainted the entire auction," said Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Utah.
Buyers will have 10 days to reconsider and withdraw their bids, Hoffman said.
The FBI was questioning a man who registered for the auction as Tim DeChristopher of Salt Lake City, said the bureau's Utah Energy Team Leader Terry Catlin.
Other bidders at the auction complained about DeChristopher as unfamiliar and bidding in an unconventional fashion, which raised suspicions, Catlin said.
DeChristopher is believed to have won the bidding on 13 parcels and driven up the price of several others. He said he successfully bid on more than $1.7 million in parcels.
"I tried to resist this sale any way I could," said the 27-year-old University of Utah economics student, who added that he only has enough money to pay for a few acres on which he bid. "I thought I could be effective by making bids, driving up prices for others and winning some bids myself."
DeChristopher, who says he expects to be charged, was released and the case is being referred to the U.S. attorney's office.
Litany of protest
For weeks, the sale has drawn complaints from environmental groups and scathing criticism from actor Robert Redford.
Activists said the sale would threaten Utah's wild lands and spoil the view from some of the state's spectacular national parks with drilling rigs.
"If we're going to sacrifice public lands, let's do it with some deliberation, not in a hasty way," said Joseph Flower, a University of Utah biology student who was among about 100 protesters outside the auction.
The bureau already had pulled some parcels from the sale in response to complaints from the National Park Service and others. Ultimately, the agency dropped more than half of the 359,000 acres first proposed for auction.
Selma Sierra, who heads the agency in Utah, said only 6 percent of lease parcels would ever see drilling because of the "costly and speculative" nature of the business. The federal government also typically imposes environmental safeguards on drilling parcels, Sierra said.
"Facts of the lease sale have been mischaracterized in the public forum, sowing confusion and misunderstanding," Sierra said.
Conservation groups sued Wednesday challenging 80 of the 132 lease parcels set to go up for bid, but the groups reached an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management the next day that allowed the auction to go forward, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
The agreement filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., stipulated that the government wouldn't issue leases on the 80 parcels for 30 days, giving a federal judge time to consider whether to block the leases.
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