Energy politics in Wyoming are hazardous for free speech.
The US state of Wyoming sits in the Rocky Mountains north of Colorado. It is large in area but sparsely populated: its two largest cities have just over 60,000 people each. Wyoming is known for Yellowstone National Park, a popular tourist destination. It still retains the image of the wild west, with farmers and cowboys enjoying the open skies and a clean environment.
However, that image is dated. Today, Wyoming might better be described as “energy country” or “pollution central.” The state has an abundance of coal, oil and natural gas, the major fossil fuels. It also has great potential for wind and solar power, but the carbon-based resources have become the basis for a booming industry. Along with the industry have come economic and political power — and intolerance of any public criticism.
For decades, I’ve been studying suppression of dissent, especially dissent in science. When a scientist speaks out critical of orthodoxy, sometimes bosses or outside groups find this unwelcome. I discovered numerous cases in which scientists who did research or spoke out about pesticides, nuclear power, forestry, fluoridation or other contested topics experienced reprisals, for example having articles censored, research grants denied, promotions blocked or access to research materials denied. Some lose their jobs.
In most of these areas, scientists confront an orthodoxy that aligns with powerful economic and political groups. For example, concerning pesticides, the mainstream scientific position aligns with pesticide manufacturers. Concerning genetically modified organisms, the mainstream scientific position aligns with GMO companies.
Interestingly, there are two prominent exceptions: smoking and climate change. The tobacco industry has waged a long campaign against medical orthodoxy on the hazards of smoking. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry has done what it can to question the dominant scientific view about climate change.
In Wyoming, it might be said that the energy companies are in charge in a way unlike most of the rest of the world. To obtain a sense of Wyoming energy culture without experiencing it directly, there’s no better source than Jeffrey Lockwood’s book Behind the Carbon Curtain. The title is a play on the phrase “behind the iron curtain,” which refers to life in the former Soviet bloc, where there was pervasive censorship.
Sinking Carbon Sink
Lockwood tells about a long-running saga involving an art installation at the University of Wyoming. Here’s a picture of it.
Just by looking at the work, you might think that there’s nothing contentious about it. But the title was Carbon Sink. All it took was a bit of media coverage about it and executives of energy companies swung into action. Carbon Sink had to go because it implied criticism of fossil fuels, and that could not be tolerated. The executives applied pressure on senior figures at the university.
Next came a sordid process of public relations blundering. University officials gave lip service to the ideal of academic freedom, as indeed did the companies. So when Carbon Sink was prematurely disassembled, university officials gave out a false reason, which caused further embarrassment when their lie was exposed.
The story of Carbon Sink is revealing in several ways. It shows how incredibly sensitive the energy companies are to criticism. Despite their immense economic and political power, a piece of art was seen as threatening.
The story also showed how tied university officials were to big funders. From the university administration’s point of view, they were doing what was needed to ensure continued funding. The energy industry provided massive grants directly to the university and also indirectly influenced most of the rest of the university budget, because the state government was beholden to the industry. Lockwood writes, “At the university, speech is not free — it’s bought and paid for by the energy industry” (p. 68).
The industry’s feeding trough
The story also shows how subservient many citizens are to the industry. A common comment was “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Lockwood obviously finds this attitude objectionable. It implies that people in Wyoming are akin to dogs being fed by their master. It assumes that the energy industry is like a generous royal patron, granting largesse to grateful subjects. Criticism of the industry is an insult to the ruler, something called lèse-majesté, and amounts to heresy. In this picture, the industry is entitled to own and exploit the state’s resources.
An alternative perspective is that natural resources are a form of heritage, to be used for the welfare of all, which includes both local residents and all life on earth, and the natural environment too. For many in the US, this perspective is almost unthinkable: it is the sort of thought that underpins socialism.
A more conventional alternative is the economic view in which so-called externalities such as polluted lands, health impacts of mining and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions should be included in the cost of doing business. This is a mainstream economic position that takes environmental costs seriously. It is also anathema to Wyoming industry. This is perhaps one reason why the industry reacts viscerally to any criticism of fossil fuels: any hint that it is involved in exploitation of the population and the environment is intolerable.
Lockwood versus Wyoming industry
Lockwood’s book is remarkable in several ways. It is a rare account of suppression of dissent that gives a careful and detailed explanation of the sordid details of censorship. The cases are complicated in their ins and outs, with claims and counterclaims and all sorts of devious behaviour. Lockwood takes a leisurely stroll through several stories, giving plenty of background and context. He tells of artworks and scientists that became targets of industry censors operating through the political system and the university. At the same time, in another way the cases are simple: free speech is the victim.
Behind the Carbon Curtain is also remarkable in being so well written. It is more than a documented contemporary history. It is filled with portraits of individuals, activities and poignant observations that together make this an engaging book to read quite independently of its lessons about economic and political power.
Finally, the book is remarkable because Lockwood is employed by the University of Wyoming. He works in the very organisation that was the target of concerted actions by companies, politicians and university officials to squelch any dissident voices. Lockwood was better placed to speak out because he works in a part of the university not directly dependent on industry money: creative writing. But that alone was not enough. He had to be willing to speak out. Few others were.
Behind the Carbon Curtain is a scholarly book, filled with references. The main text is less than 200 pages, and there are 75 pages of notes. This is a sort of protection against the possible claim of academic shortcomings. However, in the main text, the scholarly apparatus is carried lightly. Unlike the majority of academic writing, Lockwood’s prose contains both sadness and delight: sadness over the human and environmental damage caused by the energy industry, and delight in exposing political shenanigans and pathetic excuses for censorship.
One chapter is titled “Where the skies are smoggy all day,” a variation of a classic line in the song Home on the Range, “And the skies are not cloudy all day.” Gas production near the town of Pinedale led to serious air pollution, a sort of photochemical smog much worse than downtown areas in big cities. This might seem to be a problem, especially when residents of Wyoming pride themselves on their pristine environment. Moreover, the pollution had damaging effects on people’s health and led to townsfolk demanding action.
This story provides a capsule lesson in the methods commonly used by a powerful perpetrator to reduce outrage over an injustice. The methods regularly used are to cover up the action, devalue the target, reinterpret the action by lying, minimising, blaming and framing, use official channels to give a misleading impression of justice, and intimidate or reward people involved. Lockwood’s account of struggles by Pinedale residents to raise their concerns offers evidence of all of these techniques.
In the case of air pollution affecting Pinedale residents, it was hardly possible to hide the actual pollution, but industry supporters did what they could to deny responsibility.
“The governor and others implausibly attributed the pollution to the interstate highway 80 miles south of Pinedale, dirty air drifting 250 miles from Salt Lake City, and automobile exhaust from the residents of Sublette County (population density, two people per square mile).” (p. 149)
This is a good example of the tactic of blaming others.
The Pinedale Anticline Project Office refused to finance research that would identify sources of pollution. This is an example of what might be called cover-up. It’s an illustration of “undone science,” research that government and industry refuse to do or sponsor because the results might be unwelcome.
Then there were official channels. One was PAWG (Pinedale Anticline Working Group). It was chartered by the Bureau of Land Management, which did everything possible to prevent PAWG from having any influence. The existence of PAWG thus gave a misleading appearance of doing something about the problems.
The tactic of intimidation was apparent in the industry’s threat to leave the area, thereby withdrawing the financial bonanza from industry that supported employment and government income. Taxes paid by industry operated as a type of bribe.
Intimidation was also used in more targeted ways in attempts to silence critics.
“For example, a gas-field manager stopped by the Ford dealership to tell the owner that it would be good for business (the energy industry bought lots of vehicles) if the fellow would quiet down his father, an irascible legislator who sometimes spoke ill of the industry. Walker [Perry Walker, a citizen activist] also knew several other owners of small businesses in Pinedale who didn’t dare to speak up because the gas companies were paying top dollar for their services.” (p. 155)
There is one revealing sign that the energy industry is not all-powerful in Wyoming. The industry seeks to shut down criticism, and has many ways of doing this, but it is not so powerful that it feels able to censor critics openly and blatantly. Instead, censorship efforts are covert, while the main players announce that they respect free speech or just that they were not involved. As Lockwood puts it,
“However, overt acts of censorship can be self-defeating when they draw attention to the message they seek to quash. The alternative of frightening people into silence is a potent strategy, an advantage of which is that powerful individuals or corporations keep their oppression out of the limelight.” (p. 11)
Jeffrey Lockwood writes from the belly of the beast or, in his own metaphor, from behind the carbon curtain. Few others have done so. Most would rather offer justifications for acquiescing to power.
It’s useful to reflect on ways in which we accept dominant institutions that seem to have made themselves essential. This includes governments, corporations and authoritarian workplaces. Lockwood sends his epistle from behind one curtain. His book is a model for how we might reveal our lives behind other curtains, ones that few are willing to question.
PS When writing this post, I originally mistyped the title as “O beautiful for specious skies.” It is strangely appropriate.
Thanks to Kathy Flynn, Kelly Gates, Julia LeMonde, Olga Kuchinskaya, Jody Watts and Qinqing Xu for useful textual suggestions.
Comment by Jeffrey Lockwood, 1 June 2021
Regarding ongoing energy politics in Wyoming, nothing much has changed. Our governor and legislature seem dead set on denying the precipitous decline of fossil fuels. In a pathetic effort to prop up this industry, the state government is providing tax breaks to energy companies (see https://www.wyofile.com/lawmakers-weigh-tax-relief-for-oil-and-gas-again/) and suing the state of Washington for its refusing to permit the construction of a coal port to ship Wyoming coal to foreign markets, primarily China (see https://www.wyofile.com/gordon-asks-ag-for-strategy-to-sue-washington-over-coal-ports/). Having failed to diversify our economy because energy revenues were so lucrative for so long, the legislature’s “plan” is to double-down on carbon-based energy (see https://www.wyofile.com/unable-to-diversify-legislature-doubles-down-on-energy/). The state is investing heavily in carbon capture technology, unable or unwilling to recognize that sustainable energy sources are favored not so much for their greenness as for their lower cost. Indeed, the legislature is actively favoring coal plants with (unproven) carbon capture technology over solar and wind energy (see https://www.wyofile.com/stripped-of-1b-limit-gordon-carbon-capture-bill-clears-house/). The politicians want to blame President Biden and climate change activists for the decline of coal when it’s obvious that even if we had a way to burn coal with zero CO2 emissions, the market would still favor natural gas (and sustainable sources). As for industry-driven censorship, the dramatic decline in state revenues translates into deep financial cuts to the university which means the fear of offending the increasingly conservative legislature is surely quashing dissent. In the most recent round of cuts, the creative writing program was slated for elimination (retribution for having spoken out?), but the administration botched the fiscal analysis and there was significant public support for the program (see https://www.wyofile.com/creative-writing-to-be-cut-uw-counts-on-you-not-caring/).