Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
Tim DeChristopher was sentenced in a Salt Lake City courtroom on Tuesday to two years in prison and a $ 10,000 (£6,100) fine for bidding $ 1.8m (£1.1m) he did not have for drilling rights in Utah. He began his sentence at a county jail in Farmington, Utah, about 20 miles from Salt Lake City.
Campaigners from film-maker Michael Moore to scientist James Hansen denounced the sentence as excessive. “2 years 2 much. Tim’s shown courage, the rest of us need to,” the environmental activist Bill McKibben tweeted.
DeChristopher’s civil disobedience organisation, Peaceful Uprising, said on Wednesday it hoped to use the sentence to build momentum for protests in Washington next month against a proposed pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Texas. “Consider this your call to action,” the group said on its website.
More than two dozen activists were arrested on Tuesday as Judge Dee Benson handed down his sentence, telling the court that DeChristopher’s strong beliefs about climate change did not justify disrupting the industry action.
“I’m not saying there isn’t a place for civil disobedience,” Benson said. “But it can’t be the order of the day.”
He went on: “Mr DeChristopher had many other lawful ways to go against or protest the auction.”
However, he allowed DeChristopher to read a 35-minute statement to the court in which he argued his purpose was to make the oil industry accountable for the environmental damage it caused.
“My intent both at the time of the auction and now was to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil and gas industry, to the point that it cut into their $ 100bn profits,” DeChristopher said.
He said he was not deliberately seeking to go to jail.
“I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false,” he said. “You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path.”
As Bidder No 70, DeChristopher disrupted what was seen as a last giveaway to the oil and gas industry by the Bush administration, bidding $ 1.8m (£1.1m) he did not have for the right to drill in remote areas of Utah. He was convicted of defrauding the government last March, and could have been sentenced to as much as 10 years in jail.
In a phone conversation with the Guardian a day ahead of sentencing,
DeChristopher said he did not have a clear plan when he turned up at the auction in Salt Lake City in December 2008.
“At the time I went in with a very direct action kind of mindset thinking that if I can cause enough delay, stop this action and keep oil in the ground, then that would be worth it,” he said.
He had come straight from writing one of his finals, unshaven and in an old down jacket. “I certainly didn’t look like anyone who was there,” he said. “I didn’t pretend to be an oil executive or anything.”
Officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management asked if he wanted to bid. DeChristopher said yes, still thinking at that point that he just wanted to shout something or cause a disruption.
But by the time the auction was over, DeChristopher had driven up prices on some parcels and made winning bids on 14 pieces of land – some of it near national parks. He knew he had no money to pay for it.
The Obama administration later cancelled most of the sales, because of doubts about Bush’s leasing plan.
DeChristopher’s defence was complicated from the start when the judge refused to hear arguments that he had been compelled to act, to prevent a greater evil: climate change.
But while the argument did not move the court, it gained DeChristopher a following on campuses and among an older generation of activists. He also founded a civil disobedience group, Peaceful Uprising.
“Tim is a hero to me,” wrote Peter Yarrow, the folk singer, and member of Peter, Paul and Mary, in an article in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that likened DeChristopher to the leaders of the civil rights movement.
“Throughout American history, acts of civil disobedience have led to change. Think about the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves to freedom, or about the courageous actions of people like Rosa Parks, who refused to stay in the back of the bus simply because of their skin color. Without this kind of defiance of unjust laws, our country would likely still be denying people of colour basic freedoms.”