How The Energy Industry Intersects With Free Speech

May 12, 2017


In late 2010, English sculptor Chris Drury visited the University of Wyoming's campus. The school had commissioned artwork from him, though he still hadn’t decided what to make. As he spoke with locals around Laramie, Drury learned how trees in the Rockies were dying due to warmer winters due to climate change. He wanted to draw a connection between the trees' downfall and the state’s contribution to global warming through the coal, oil and gas industries.

In mid-2011, on UW's campus, Drury began his piece. He dug a shallow 36-foot circle to begin the installation. He described it as, "this vast, whirlpool of logs and coal disappearing down in the earth which is why it’s called carbon sink.” 

Soon after, a story came out in the Casper Star Tribune about Carbon Sink. Readers were not happy. Drury said, “They immediately got on the phone with the coal board and politicians and all hell broke loose really."

People wanted it down. Legislators threatened to pull funding from the University. Wyoming Public Radio reported UW President Tom Buchanan e-mailed the Art Museum director asking for the installation be removed early.

Drury said, “I was totally taken aback. No one normally takes any notice of all of what I do and suddenly there’s this great furor about it.

The school removed Carbon Sink less than a year after it was installed. University of Wyoming Professor Dr. Jeff Lockwood said, “They demanded the removal and destruction of that artwork and the university complied in what seemed to be an explicit and abhorrent act of censorship.” 

In Behind the Carbon Curtain, Lockwood claimed Wyoming’s energy industry uses its economic power to influence state politics. Coal, oil, gas, and uranium make up around 70 percent of the state’s economy after all. Students rely on the industries’ revenue for low tuition rates; the government for programs like drug recovery clinics, public schools, infrastructure. But Lockwood argued this bankrolling has a dangerous price. 

Lockwood said, “We’ve seen scientists fired and defunded. We’ve seen artists work destroyed and censored. We’ve seen educators informed that the were precluded from teaching some of the fundamentals of science.” 

He didn’t just blame energy companies for this, but state legislators too for supporting them. He accused politicians of being too afraid to stand up for themselves or their constituents.

Lockwood said, "We’ve been well taken care of; do we want to bite the hand that feeds us? You don’t want to offend the company that’s providing your source of wealth and income.”

He added there’s a greater need for controversial discussions - like Carbon Sink - in the state now more than ever. He claimed the fossil fuel industry is in a permanent decline. If it does disappear, he said Wyoming needs a more diversified economy. But for that to happen there must be a diversity of ideas, too.

John Robitaille is Vice President at the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. He said Lockwood’s claims are overblown. The energy industry does not suppress free speech. In fact, he said he hears constant criticism, “What we’re doing is ultimately playing defense against things that are coming out and making it increasingly difficult to actually produce a product that is needed and and necessary in this country." 

Robitaille said people like him in the industry want to have open conversations, but their opponents don’t give them the chance.

He said, “There are folks out there who have their opinion and have a close mind about it and that makes it extremely difficult to understand the other person’s point of view."

Senator Minority Leader and University of Wyoming professor Chris Rothfuss agreed with Robitaille that he doesn’t think the energy industry is widely suppressing free speech. He said politicians tend to vote in favor of the industry because that’s what their districts support, adding, “Our biases I guess you would say are the constituencies we represent, and the interests we represent, I don’t know that I would say anyone is in anyone’s pocket.” 

In his book, Lockwood pointed to energy-related contributions to political campaigns as a serious issue. Rothfuss has been a state Senator for six years. He said his colleagues really aren’t getting that much money, a few thousand dollars in campaign contributions, certainly not enough to change a vote on a given issue: “I don’t think anyone will be bought out for $10,000. It’s absurd someone would sell out for that kind of money and I don’t think they have.”

Rothfuss added energy lobbyists aren’t particularly intimidating figures either. No more than their renewable counterparts anyway — he cited a call from a wind advocate when there was discussion about a tax on the wind industry, “'Well you can’t do this to our industry, this would be bad, we need your support, we’re going to leave Wyoming if this type of policy moves forward.'”

In the end, Rothfuss agreed that the energy industry does have an outsized influence on the state: it does have well-resourced lobbyists and does make not insignificant campaign contributions, “but that’s not necessarily quashing free speech,” he said. 

Lockwood argued the energy industry is no better or worse than any other dominant industry in a state whether it's agriculture in Iowa or coal in West Virginia. But from his point of view, that influence must be curbed. 

Lockwood said, “If we tolerate the loss of free speech, if we tolerate censorship, it has nothing but horrible consequences for the United States of America and that’s something we all have a stake in.”

EDIT: Changes were made to more accurately reflect specific dates and the original reporting of the Carbon Sink story