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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A footnote today about those oil and gas leases in Utah that were canceled by the Obama administration. The eleventh-hour leases were auctioned by the Bush administration in December, then cancelled by the new White House, because the land is close to national parks and other sensitive areas.

Well, a college student may face federal criminal charges for disrupting that December auction with bogus bids. In some quarters, though, he's a folk hero.

NPR's Howard Berkes has his story.

HOWARD BERKES: Twenty-seven-year-old Tim DeChristopher joined the protestors in December, marching quietly outside the Salt Lake City offices of the Federal Bureau of Land Management as the dreaded oil and gas auction began.

Mr. TIM DECHRISTOPHER (Protester): And it was something that I'd seen at a lot of other events that I've been at, people that wanted to make a statement, but knew that they were fighting a losing battle. So, I knew that I wanted to do more, and so, then, I resolved to go inside.

BERKES: Now, the economics major hadn't shaved in days. It was finals week, after all. That, and his brown Carhartt pants and reddish-brown outdoorsy shirt, made him look like a disgruntled tree-hugger.

Mr. DECHRISTOPHER: I figured I would be dragged out by security as soon as I went in, and, you know, I'd yell something, or throw a shoe or something like that, but, instead, I walked in and they said, hi, are you here to be a bidder? And so, I said, yes, I am. I just got myself signed up, and all it took was a driver's license to get inside.

(Soundbite of auction)

Unidentified Man #1 (Auctioneer): The next one would be parcel number 884.

BERKES: The bidding was already underway when DeChristopher sat down, armed with a white laminated card with the number 70 in big black letters. He just watched at first, then raised his card sporadically, simply driving prices higher. And then he kept the card high, actually winning a dozen bids in a row worth nearly $2 million.

Ms. KATHLEEN SGAMMA (Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States): Basically the brokers who were there, they all know each other, and they pretty much knew that he wasn't a typical bidder.

BERKES: Kathleen Sgamma had never seen anything like it before. She's with an industry trade group, the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

Ms. SGAMMA: We were thinking that perhaps he was representing an environmental group and had some money to put up.

BERKES: One of DeChristopher's winning bids was captured on a cell phone and posted on YouTube.

(Soundbite of auction)

Unidentified Man #1: Sold, $50 to bidder number 70, bidder 70 for $50. The next one.

Mr. DECHRISTOPHER: And a federal agent came over and showed me a badge and said, let's go talk outside.

BERKES: It was a long talk, about two hours, with DeChristopher under arrest.

Mr. DECHRISTOPHER: I told him very clearly that my intent was to disrupt this auction, and that it was an act of civil disobedience, because I felt this auction was a fraud against the American people, and a threat to my future.

BERKES: With that confession, the agent told the college student he'd be hearing from the U.S. attorney's office about federal charges. And then, DeChristopher was released into a horde of reporters, including a crew from KSL Eyewitness News.

(Soundbite of news program)

Unidentified Man #2: An environmentalist threw a controversial oil and gas lease auction into turmoil today.

Unidentified Man #3: Well, Tim DeChristopher says he's willing to go to jail, and it's possible that's where he'll wind up.

BERKES: The e-mails, phone calls and blog postings poured in, more than 1,000 of them, along with $100,000 to help pay for the bogus bids.

Mr. DECHRISTOPHER: And I think it was a new perspective of an average American really believing that I had a role to play in my government, and that I wasn't helpless to stop this destruction. You know, I'm like that little fish in the Amazon that swims up your urine into your urethra and takes you down from the inside out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: Industry representative Kathleen Sgamma is not amused.

Ms. SGAMMA: We're a nation of laws. There's a democratic process in place. If you don't like what's happening, and if we all just decided we wanted to change the laws unilaterally, that would run counter to our democracy.

BERKES: Sgamma believes DeChristopher didn't change anything. He forced prices higher on some parcels, but they still went to energy companies. And some of the leases he won could go out for bid again, after an Obama administration review. There's also a lawsuit that could delay the whole process for years.

None of that wipes the slate clean, says Utah's U.S. attorney, and federal criminal charges would transform Tim DeChristopher from folk hero to martyr, whether he deserves it or not.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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