Following Bidder 70, ‘The Whammer’ Wrecks a Gas Auction: Another ‘Wrench in the Gears’

As stolen from Riled Up….

By Reilly Capps

Next month, Monkeywrencher Tim DeChristopher will have been in prison for half of a two-year sentence. To mark the occasion, I’m taking a look at how he’s changed the landscape of environmentalism. Today, an exclusive story about a man who followed DeChristopher’s playbook, knowingly broke the law, and saved land from being drilled. The authorities are after him. Up next, a look at a new film about DeChristopher, and a story about the filmmakers behind it.

The Whammer 2To protest fracking in his home state of Michigan, a man who calls himself The Whammer camped on a sidewalk for a week in sandals and a t-shirt.

He admits it: laws were broken.

He loitered. He spat.

But to commit a serious crime, The Whammer had to slip on a suit.

Chris Wahmhoff, 33, buttoned up an Armani jacket and laced up Prada shoes. He strolled into Lansing’s Constitution Hall May 8, squirmed his way past law enforcement officers and into a room where the state was auctioning off the right to drill for oil and gas on public land. Though he makes $240 a month, he says, working with disabled people, The Whammer looked more GQ than most of the land men.

The Whammer signed up as a legitimate bidder, and, after gathering his courage, raised his bid card and bought the rights to drill on 160 acres.

The rights cost $56,320. He was supposed to pay all of that by the end of the day.

The Whammer has $42 in his bank account.

He quietly slipped out of the building. Now he’s dodging the authorities, who are investigating what he did as a possible crime.

The Whammer’s act of civil disobedience makes him at least the second member of the real-life version of Edward Abbey’s fictional Monkey Wrench Gang.

Some  environmental protesters followed  Abbey’s book too literally, becoming eco-terrorists who burned down buildings and torched car lots.

But The Whammer acted peacefully. He wrecked only a little bureaucracy. And I suspect he’ll be far more successful than the Earth Liberation Front ever was. Everybody hated those guys.

But The Whammer was following in lead of the famous – or infamous — Tim DeChristopher, the all-time most successful environmental monkeywrencher, who peacefully and cleverly derailed the Bush Administration’s plans to drill for oil and gas on some of the most pristine acres near some of the most beautiful national parks in Utah. In late 2008, DeChristopher posed as an oil and gas man and won $1.7 million worth of drilling rights before he was hauled away. The Obama administration, when it came into power, essentially agreed with DeChristopher, canceling the leases on more than 100,000 acres worth of drilling rights offered in that auction. The administration prosecuted him anyway, and he is currently serving a tough two year prisonsentence in Colorado.

DeChristopher had never inspired a successful copycat, as far as anyone knows, until The Whammer followed his playbook nearly to the letter.

Basically quoting Abbey, The Whammer told me: “There’s got to be people to be the wrench in the gears.”

Like DeChristopher, The Whammer had a real effect. He almost certainly gave a beautiful corner of Michigan a reprieve from drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a practice in the gas industry says is fine but which which critics say contaminates the groundwater.

Wahmhoff (pronounced WAH-moff), grew up in west Michigan, just 10 miles away from what activists say was the most sensitive area to be drilled, Yankee Springs basin, and he worried fracking could poison the water his relatives drink.

“It’s my family, man!” he told me. “Somebody had to do something.”

In fact, a number of people were trying to do something that day. Fracking has become so reviled that activists and environmentalists were throwing everything they had at it.

Outside the building, they chanted and sang and banged on the building’s windows.

Inside, Steve Losher, 48, a carpenter and self-described “loudmouth sumbitch,”  objected the old-fashioned way: yelling and screaming until the authorities dragged him off, limp, to jail.

Deborah G. Olson, a lawyer, bid on drilling rights near her house, trying to save them from drilling. She was willing to pay a substantial amount to preserve the land.

“I stopped bidding when the prices got too high for us,” she told me in an email. “The oil companies will not be outbid for these leases. We may have driven up the price.”

All the while,whammer The Whammer kept quiet and watched.

OIl and gas bidding is an insider’s game. The Whammer got the feeling that the auctioneers and the bidders were all working toward the same thing. Most in the room knew he wasn’t a legitimate bidder, he says. But, distracted by all the protesters, Michigan let him sign up as Bidder 160.

“I had read about Bidder 70,” Wahmhoff told me, “and he did such a huge, out of proportion thing.”

He knew DeChristopher, Bidder 70, had gone to prison, he said. And he figured prison time was a possibility for himself.

He wanted to bid on parcels near his home, but it’s difficult to tell what is being bid on, exactly, since they’re usually described in the very technical language of surveying. Wahmhoff thought Lot 77 was one of the bigger offerings, and when it came up for auction, he decided to act.

“I just thought – ‘Fuck it, let’s do it,” he said. “I just put my hand up put my hand up put my hand up.”

Here’s a video of The Whammer bidding.

Not long after he starts, it becomes obvious to the crowd that something is up. They start to look at each other, shifting in their seats, shaking their heads. The Whammer is bidding up the price … enthusiastically. After bidding at $350 an acre, apparently a very high price for the rights in question, the auctioneer asks if anyone will go to 375. The Whammer raises his bid card again.

“I’ve got you in, sir, at 350,” the auctioneer says.

The Whammer had just outbid himself.

He lowers his card, a little sheepish.

With the crowd clearly uncomfortable, the auctioneer says: “Sold!”

Wahmhoff didn’t know it, but it turned out he had just bought the rights to drill on 160 acres in Arenac County, in the northeast part of the state, on the shores of Lake Huron. Until our interview, he hadn’t done the math, 160 acres times $350 an acre: $56,000.

“Whoooooo,  so there you go.” he said, sounding like a man who just realized he stood in the path of an oncoming flood.  “I do not have anything in my name.”

Edward Golder, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which administers drilling, told me in an email that his department is “currently investigating possible criminal or civil penalties against the individual who defaulted on this bid at the May 8 auction.”

Possible charges haven’t been determined, Golder said.

As a result of his action, the acreage Wahmhoff won would not be drilled on soon, Golder said. But it could become available for lease again at the next auction, in October.

In the room that day, The Whammer stood there coolly, taking notes like a real land man. On the inside, he told me, he was “going into my shitting-my-pants phase.”

He was expecting to be nabbed and hauled off like DeChristopher. When no one strong-armed him, he regrouped outside with his fellow protesters. They high-fived, but he quickly told them: “I don’t know how long I have until I go to jail. So, guys, I want to go home now.”

The day after the auction he  emailed Peaceful Uprising, the non-profit DeChristopher co-founded, to see if they could help him figure out what to do next.

But, for weeks, he didn’t hear anything from the state.

Then a representative of the DNR called his mom’s house. Last Wednesday, the state left a message on his phone. Both calls were sent to voicemail. The Whammer told me he won’t answer phone calls from the state until he gets a lawyer. It’s nearly a month now since the auction.

The Whammer is part of an effort to put an initiative on the Michigan ballot to ban fracking. But he felt like not enough was happening. Like DeChristopher, he felt like he had no other choice.

Like DeChristopher, he’s not sorry.

“There is no ‘I’m sorry,'” he said. “We have a choice, and I’m done pretending like we don’t. We have a choice,  and I made it, and whatever happens, happens.”