WyoFile Energy Report

Carbon Sink; University of Wyo doesn’t have to bend to energy politics

In August, a state staffer was explaining to members of the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set out to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Dustin Bleizeffer

One lawmaker asked; And on what evidence have they based their conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to global warming?

The state staffer nervously replied; They based it on all of the scientific evidence.

It was not a satisfactory answer for the lawmaker, but he didn’t pursue the line of questioning because, well, he had nowhere to go. Wyoming leaders who have a one-dimensional view of coal (something like this; $$$) can’t bully EPA — or the U.S. Supreme Court — over the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. But they can bully our only four-year university, if citizens let them get away with it.

When University of Wyoming officials caved to pressure from politicians and the energy industry to remove the Carbon Sink sculpture from campus earlier this year, they revealed a no-tolerance policy toward speech suspected to counter the sanitized PR messaging of Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries. I realize that university officials say otherwise. But if there’s any doubt about an intolerance toward suspected anti-fossil fuel speech, just read some of the emails between energy officials, lawmakers and university officials.

Now, how that policy is enforced, and whether the policy stands, is up to Wyoming citizens and others who value free speech. Citizens have two immediate opportunities to help change the course on this policy:

Carbon Sink
Chris Drury’s “Carbon Sink” as installed on the University of Wyoming’s campus. The 36-foot diameter piece of art, composed of scorched wood felled by pine beetles, has created a controversy: how much sway should politicians and industry representatives have over academic freedom? The sculpture was removed earlier this year under political pressure from Wyoming lawmakers and the energy industry. (Photo courtesy of Chris Drury — click to enlarge)

— Citizens can insist that the University of Wyoming, in its current search to find a new university president, place freedom of speech and academic autonomy at the top of the values and priorities list, and filter out candidates willing to bend to purely political interests of donors and legislators.

— Citizens can ask the UW School of Energy Resources (SER) Council to follow Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s lead and ask to be removed from the art-approval process mandated through legislation earlier this year.

Legislating art

To the latter point; Carbon Sink so riled Wyoming lawmakers that they inserted this mandate into an appropriation for the renovation of the Half Acre recreation facility on campus;

“In providing artwork for the half acre recreation center pursuant to the provisions of W.S. 16-6-801 through 16-6-805, the university shall require artwork which displays the historical, cultural and current significance of transportation, agriculture and minerals in Wyoming’s history. Notwithstanding the provisions of W.S. 16-6-801 through 16-6-805 [which specifies that a panel representing the local community, art community, architect and state agency advise on the selection of art] the proposals for artwork shall be submitted to the university’s energy resources council and the governor for approval.”

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

In a press conference earlier this month, Gov. Mead told reporters he would ask the Legislature to remove him from this art approval process, acknowledging that it was a politically-charged mandate. Mead certainly isn’t shy about his alliances with the energy industry, or his particular preference toward fossil fuels — be it on the national hydraulic fracturing stage or coal’s international stage. And yet he sees with clarity what a mistake it is to mandate an art jury with coal-filtered glasses.

Now it’s the School of Energy Resources Council’s turn; Will this 11-member committee (which includes UW President Buchanan and several energy executives) follow the governor’s lead and ask to be removed from the art approval process?

Early this week, I asked SER Council member Rep. Tom Lockhart (R-Casper). “That’s not what they’re into, is art,” Lockhart told WyoFile. “I’m fine with the the School of Energy Resources Council being removed from that process.”

I asked that my question be forwarded to UW President Buchanan, and UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said, “President Buchanan intends to fully comply with the legislative directive regarding artwork in the Half Acre Recreation and Wellness Center.” I’ve also forwarded the question to SER Council chairman Ron Harper, former CEO of Basin Electric Power Cooperative. I’ll update this post with his response as soon as I receive one.

Hire a UW president with a backbone

To the first point — UW’s search for a new university president.

I asked WyoFile’s Gregory Nickerson to pose this question to university trusteesAs the presidential search process moves forward, to what degree will free speech and academic freedom play, in light of the Carbon Sink controversy and the perception that the energy industry is wielding influence on campus?

Screenshot of a July 2011 email from Peabody Energy’s Kelly Mader to University of Wyoming official regarding the Carbon Sink controversy.

University of Wyoming Board of Trustees President Dave Bostrom: “Number one, academic freedom and academic expression will always be at the top of the list, from the standpoint of the board, from the standpoint of the administration, and I think that’s been demonstrated. Do we have a responsibility to take into consideration the opinions of all constituents? Absolutely. One of those constituents, a very major constituent, are the people in the energy industry. And so will their opinions be considered? Will we take opinions from them? Absolutely. They will be considered along with all other constituencies, but I want to stress that no constituency will override any other constituency in dealing with the presidential search, nor in dealing with the policies of the University of Wyoming.

Nickerson followed up with this question: Are you going to ask candidates about their experience in defending academic freedom?

Bostrom: Absolutely. That will be part of the vetting of all candidates,” Bostrom said. “So I guess I come back to, we need to be careful that we don’t place too much confidence in single constituencies in dealing with the applicants. In dealing with the applicants they are going to need to understand Wyoming, the culture of Wyoming, they are going to have to understand that, frankly, we are an energy-driven state and the energy industry and the revenues that go to the state of Wyoming from the energy industry are extremely important. But that is not the only concern,” Bostrom said, adding that UW is the only four-year post-secondary institution in Wyoming. “We have a broader responsibility than a lot of other universities do because we are dealing with all of the academic areas in Wyoming. And so it’s both an opportunity as well as a challenge to do that.”

The UW Board of Trustees has elected to use a closed process (candidate names will not be revealed) in its search and selection of a new university president, so you and I won’t get to pose questions directly to the candidates. But the public does have access to the Board of Trustees, and citizens have every right to let them know what qualities they hold in highest regard when it comes to selecting UW’s next president.

For more on the Carbon Sink issue, read these related posts:

Buchanan on Carbon Sink: UW didn’t kowtow to powerful interests,” an op-ed by University of Wyoming president Tom Buchanan

Wyoming’s leaders reveal weakness in Carbon Sink controversy,” a column by Dustin Bleizeffer

Behind the Carbon Curtain; Art and freedom in Wyoming,” an essay by Jeffrey Lockwood

Art & Energy: Coal’s reaction to ‘Carbon Sink’ sculpture reveals the power of art — and the essence of education,” an essay by Jeffrey Lockwood

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Reach him at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer.

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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. Wouldn’t it be great to see half of the football stadium with a display of “Carbon Sink” on a nationaly televised football game.

  2. Excellent coverage of the “art issue” at UW. Fear and ignorance usually create questions regarding art, politics, and freedom of speech. Keep up the good work!

  3. Ironically, the Carbon Sink piece fits the bill perfectly as it has clearly tapped into “the historical, cultural and current significance of transportation, agriculture and minerals in Wyoming’s history.”

    The art work seems to have done its work very well. The legislators and university administrators – not so much.

  4. I would just like to express how much I appreciate your continued journalism on this subject. As a current student at UW, the disregard for academic freedom and intellectual debate the university showed in its quest to appease the majority sickens me, and I’m not sure I want a degree from such an institution.

    The fact that the energy industry and its representatives in our legislature felt so threatened by an art piece intended to promote conversation on the relationship between pine beetles and the coal industry (http://chrisdrury.co.uk/carbon-sink/), really points to the insecurities in their viewpoint. In my opinion, a much improved action on the part of the industry would be to commission another though promoting, thought provoking piece of art to serve as a counterpoint to the Carbon Sink. The fact that government censorship of a PUBLIC INSTITUTION was the first, and only reaction they had, speaks to the heart of the energy debate.