‘Carbon Curtain’ exposes suppression of science at a state university

By Erik Molvar, Executive Director, Western Watersheds Project

While Trump administration issues directives banning discourse on climate change and muzzles scientists in federal agencies, the fossil fuel industry may have an even tighter stranglehold over state institutions. In his new exposé of industry meddling in higher education, Behind the Carbon Curtain (slated for an April 15th release by the University of New Mexico Press), author Jeff Lockwood catalogs the cronyism and intimidation tactics repeatedly used to suppress science, art, and free speech at state universities.

The book begins with the saga of an art installation called Carbon Sink: What Comes Around Goes Around. This spiral of dead logs and coal lumps, created by British sculptor Chris Drury on the University of Wyoming grounds, highlighted the link between burning coal and the warming winters that played a key role in a bark beetle outbreak that killed off vast forests of lodgepole pine in the nearby Medicine Bow Mountains. Expressions of outrage by the coal industry were followed by thinly-veiled threats by Wyoming legislators to withhold funding from the university. Caving under the pressure, university administrators dismantled the art installation early, made angry media statements, and set up a commission to regulate which art could be displayed on campus. Thus, an obscure and little-noticed sculpture became a nationwide scandal.

Lockwood goes on to delve into the lesser-known incidents. The university removed faculty members who arrived at the “wrong” conclusions about the problems caused by the fossil fuels industry. One geochemist was removed from a position at the Colorado School of Mines for publicly stating that an EPA report that found no evidence for fracking contamination of groundwater also showed no evidence that contamination hadn’t been caused by fracking. The same researcher later raised hackles in the Wyoming oil industry for correctly reporting the 48 to 70 million gallons of water required to frack a well in the Niobrara shale formation near Cheyenne, a figure that turns out to be correct. After stirring up more industry ire by pointing to nondisclosure agreements as a means the oil industry uses to silence victims of water contamination related to fracking, the geochemist’s contract with the University of Wyoming was abruptly terminated because, according to his supervisor, “Mark Northam [head of the School of Energy Resources] gets a lot of money from these oil companies and you are screwing with that.”

An air quality expert who developed a means to pinpoint the sources of ozone pollution at gas wells and compressor stations in the Upper Green River gas fields, helping to find solutions to the problem. But instead of getting an award, he got his funding removed and had to terminate the research.

Lockwood also chronicles the disappearance of the last state climatologist in Wyoming, who met his professional demise by pointing out that increasing droughts resulting from human-caused climate change would have major consequences for the state’s agriculture industry. “Like a far-flung, codependent family of 532,000 people, Wyoming was committed to denying the existence of the oily, gassy, coal-dusted elephant in the room,” Lockwood concludes.

Taken together, these incidents at the University of Wyoming reveal a systematic and pervasive effort to suppress free speech and scientific research that conflicts with the fossil fuel industry’s bottom line. These actions have a chilling effect on science.

Lockwood’s Carbon Curtain catalogs a rogue’s gallery of obstreperous legislators shamelessly flacking for corporate interests, big industry financial donors throwing their weight around, and obsequious university administrators eager to sell out academic integrity and open discourse in a stampede to suppress embarrassing truths. Wyoming state agencies are revealed as actively cheerleading for the oil and coal industries in an effort to silence the unseemly reality that out-of-state fossil fuel corporations strip mine Wyoming’s mineral wealth, leaving behind broken communities, polluted air and water, and stricken lands.

Americans are taught to believe that the ivory tower of academia is shielded from dirty politics, and that in its elysian halls, science can proceed untainted and unhindered by bias or corporate influence. Perhaps this atmosphere exists at some universities, but not in Wyoming.

Lockwood’s book focuses on the wrongs at the University of Wyoming, and they are many. Still other examples of extractive industries dictating university policies didn’t make the book. But important and unbiased scientific findings do sometimes make it through the University system, highlighted by Dr. Matt Holloran’s groundbreaking research on the impacts of oil and gas drilling on sage grouse and their habitats, funded by the gas industry itself.

While the University of Wyoming is an extreme case, the problems that Lockwood uncovers in his book are surely present elsewhere at other state-run universities that rely on legislatures for major parts of their funding. Wyoming is perhaps the last bastion of fossil fuels – some 3% of the fossil fuels burned in the entire world come out of this one American state – there is no doubt that other states have other politically powerful industries that are using their pull to skew the science or to keep embarrassing findings from seeing the light of day.

Lockwood’s book paints an ugly picture of a state government that, like the scrawny inmate on the prison block, is chronically unable (or unwilling) to stand up for itself. As a result, Wyoming’s communities have been repeatedly wracked by economically and socially devastating booms and busts, and its open spaces have suffered onslaughts of bulldozers and drilling rigs that industrialize and fragment its wildlife habitats.

With the Trump administration threatening to place environmental protections on the chopping block and to abdicate federal decisions to state governments, the fossil fuel industry is poised to reign supreme. Make no mistake – as President Trump initiates efforts to squelch science and dissent that are truly unprecedented in federal agencies, the states have been playing this same game for decades. If federal authority and regulations are dismantled, and power is transferred to the states, the war on science will only get worse. The West may never be the same.

Erik Molvar is the Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group working to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and legal advocacy.



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  1. John Young Avatar
    John Young

    Here in Texas where my wife and I live, the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems started as land grant colleges. The West Texas land generates money that goes into a Permanent University Fund that was originally generated by cattle grazing fees but now oil and gas operation royalty fees are the BIG money makers. 2/3 of the money goes to the UT system, 1/3 to the A&M system.

    We’re members of saveRGVfromLNG, which is fighting LNG export operations targeting our local Port of Brownsville (https://www.facebook.com/saveRGVfromLNG/). Last year, our local UT Rio Grande Valley signed a Memorandum Of Understanding with the biggest of the three LNG companies targeting our port. The Faculty Senate came up just one vote short of asking the UTRGV to rescind the MOU.

    For more information on UT’s fracking connection, see “Climate Campaign Puts UT on Notice: Reduce Methane Emissions at Your West Texas Oil Fields,” 09-21-2016, http://www.environmenttexas.org/news/txe/climate-campaign-puts-ut-notice-reduce-methane-emissions-your-west-texas-oil-fields.

    There’s more to the story if you’re interested.

  2. Bob Brister Avatar
    Bob Brister

    Well put, Erik. Perhaps more sunshine on this grim situation will act as a disinfectant (I’m not holding my breath waiting).

  3. Yvette Avatar

    Things are going to get much worse. For time being, we probably need to prepare ourselves for many losses. Job losses, loss of protections for wildlife, water, land and anything that is not ‘market capitalism’. This is not a chicken little scream. It is already happening.

    EPA is going to take a huge hit before trumpism is over and so will many federal agencies, but EPA is the favorite mangy dog for republicans to beat.

    If you can’t see it happening(extinctions of fauna and flora); and you can’t hear it (loss of water, land and air protection); and you can’t say it (climate change) then surely it won’t affect you. {sarcasm}

    Tis the way with republicans and trumpsters. The rest of us need to brace ourselves for the losses that are happening. This is ‘Shock Doctrine’ in action.

  4. timz Avatar

    Must be tough living in such paranoia


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Ken Cole