WyoFile Energy Report

Wyoming’s leaders reveal weakness in Carbon Sink controversy

This week, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead announced he will ask the legislature to remove him from a review process that was established to approve or disapprove of artwork installed on parts of the University of Wyoming campus. The oversight committee was established by the Wyoming Legislature earlier this year in the wake of the Carbon Sink controversy. The law required that Gov. Mead and the UW School of Energy Resources governing body — made up mostly of fossil fuel executives — must approve of art installations on parts of the university campus.

Dustin Bleizeffer

So why is Gov. Mead asking to be removed from the art approval committee?

Last week Wyoming Public Radio produced a story revealing that Wyoming lawmakers and the University of Wyoming are overly-eager to appease a thin-skinned fossil fuel lobby that is used to having its way in our state policies and public forum.

The Wyoming Public Radio report was based on a number of emails and follow up conversations with Wyoming lawmakers and others close to the issue. It followed a WyoFile guest essay, “Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming,” by University of Wyoming professor Jeffrey Lockwood.

As the story goes, a sculpture was installed on the University of Wyoming campus late in 2011, partially funded by the Cultural Trust Fund. It was promptly removed in May 2012. Carbon Sink, by artist Chris Drury, sought to make a statement about society’s reliance on fossil fuels and its impacts on climate and our forests. The energy industry viewed the sculpture as an affront to an industry responsible for more than 60 percent of the state’s revenue, and approximately 60 percent of the funding that goes to the University of Wyoming.

University donors, such as the coal mining giant Peabody Energy, threatened to stop giving to the university, according to Wyoming Public Radio. Lawmakers made the same threat with state funds. Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, wrote an email stating, “I am considering introducing legislation to avoid any hypocrisy at UW by insuring that no fossil fuel derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming funding stream.”

Lubnau later told Wyoming Public Radio, “Whether you appreciate that or not, and whether you like that or not, between 60 and 80 (percent) of your budget comes from those extractive industries and it’s something you ought to know.”

A detail of ‘Carbon Sink’ as it is being installed. The sculpture is composed of timber felled by pine beetles. (Photo by Chris Drury — click to enlarge)
A detail of ‘Carbon Sink’ as it is being installed. The sculpture is composed of timber felled by pine beetles. (Photo by Chris Drury — click to enlarge)

Lubnau and others seem to not understand the fundamental relationship between taxation and what public governing bodies and public institutions decide to do with the money. Paying a tax doesn’t give you any more right to say how those public funds ought to be spent than any other taxpayer in Wyoming. And to demand certain outcomes, or works of art, by giving to a university reveals a complete lack of understanding that universities require freedom of speech in order to be relevant institutions of knowledge and ideas.

As a Wyoming resident, I know first-hand that it’s common to be very appreciative of the mineral wealth we have in Wyoming, and appreciative of the vibrant energy industry that provides jobs and a tax base, while still being fully alarmed at a lobby that over and over again seeks to overplay its influence in public matters.

In his WyoFile essay, Lockwood put it this way; “The legislature can no more have a public hospital in which physicians are told not to render aid to political dissidents than they can have a public university in which faculty are told not to render artworks that offend political sensibilities. Such is the cost of freedom.”

And what’s the bigger take-home message for our University of Wyoming students? That a sculpture speaking to all of society’s reliance on fossil fuels amounts to hypocrisy in a state reliant on fossil fuels? Or that the most powerful political entity in Wyoming is threatened by a piece of art and results in threats of pulling funding?

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Interesting how conservatives decry politically correct speech on the one hand, and thought-provoking art at a university campus. Bottom line: don’t think, say or do anything that would displease our current masters or their lackeys in the legislature. Then we can all live happily ever after as the energy industry despoils our air, water, wildlife, scenery and integrity in academia and government.
    That about sum it up?

  2. Relying on Tom Lubnau’s logic then, people in Montana should be worshiping the gambling industry for paying taxes on their predatory fleecing of the gullible residents. How about the tobacco companies? Why do only the big extractors and purveyors of vice get respected for their taxpaying obligations? What about all the corporations such as railroads and utilities that object to their taxation rates and tie up budgets for local governments and school districts? Wyoming’s colonial apologists like Lubnau need to be rigorously scrutinized for their motives.

  3. What an embarassment. Year after year I keep hoping that the good ole boys … like Lubnau will retire and melt away into obscurity with age and dementia. Until then, the same old same old and powers that be will control the agenda. At this point, Wyoming and its leadership does not seem much different than Putin’s russia. This makes me sick.

  4. The mining industry has become what the livestock industry was in the 1800’s (and still is) in Wyoming. This is truly embarrassing to the “Equality State.”

  5. This is an excellent and calm summary of a topic that knots many knickers and extends far beyond UW.
    Events at the university (Bill Ayers, Carbon Sink) and other cultural venues (Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper rejecting respected energy-related exhibits on orders of some donors) seem to shine the brightest light on what I consider the worst problem in Wyoming politics — control of our public officials and institutions by the energy industries. Let’s not forget that they are but the latest group to run our colony, after the cattle barons, mining companies and railroads.
    We need to stop worrying about “taking our state back” from the Federal government and confront the real problem, which is taking our state back from the energy corporate oligarchs.

  6. This is so embarrassing for our state. It’s shame. And, yes, what kind of country and state are we living in that allows big corporations to censor our artists. Freedom of speech? Where is it? This was such an interesting thoughtful sculpture and connected our environmental vs industrial issues in a subtle and beautiful way. Our university’s art museum is a really great one so I hate to see them attacked on opening their minds to this kind of artwork; and opening the viewers minds to figure out what this piece was about. Seems some basic art history is in order for these legislators.

  7. Alas for the “easy” way out. A more constructive outcome might have been dialogue about the goals of art and the goals of the energy industry, and more exposure to the lessons of art history (and thereby world history).

    When we censor art for fear of offending the powerful, we come dangerously close to accepting control over basic freedoms, such as we see in totalitarian regimes like China and Russia. Those governments are deeply threatened by freedom of expression. We should not be.

  8. Perhaps the government should get out of the business of purchasing “art”. This would be the easiest solution.