In my forthcoming book, Behind the Carbon Curtain, The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech (University of New Mexico Press), I tell the stories of scientists, artists and teachers who have been silenced by the collusion of energy corporations and public officials. My purpose is to provide witness, to record events, to give voice—and in so doing to shift the balance of power ever so slightly to bring us closer to a tipping point of outrage and change.
These stories and my analysis will not change society—at least not these alone. But maybe they will as part of a national narrative that includes the families in Pennsylvania driven from their homes by leaking methane, and whom energy companies compensate only in exchange for their silence. The nation’s story includes the citizens in West Virginia who were sued for libel by a coal company for criticizing the industry in a newsletter. And our country’s narrative involves the professor in the University of Oklahoma’s ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics who was intimidated into silence when an oil tycoon and major donor demanded the dismissal of scientists studying the link between fracking and earthquakes. Free speech is under attack by the energy industry across the nation.
I’d like to share a few vignettes from the varied and disturbing tales of censorship to provide a sense of what is happening in Wyoming and elsewhere.
In 2001, Dr. Geoff Thyne was a research scientist in the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources when he was contacted by a reporter from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle who was investigating the development of an enormous gas field in southeastern Wyoming. When she asked Thyne how much water would be needed for fracking, he offered a range of figures based on the available scientific literature.
After the story came out, a University vice president notified School of Energy administrators that Noble Energy and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming were on the warpath. Thyne explained to the frenzied administrators that he’d, “made the comments based on my experience as a member of the scientific advisory board for the current EPA hydraulic fracturing study.”
At a meeting with university and corporate bigwigs, Thyne was ordered to write a full retraction. Mark Northam, the director of the School of Energy Resources, told Thyne: “I will edit your letter and you will sign it. You shouldn’t have said anything and don’t say anything ever again.” Thyne relented to the director’s revisions, but the scientist refused to retract his estimates of water usage. Soon after, Thyne was fired and told that: “Mark Northam gets a lot of money from these oil companies and you are screwing with that.”
In 2008, the University of Wyoming’s Office of Water Programs was headed by a committed climate change denier who dismissed the findings of the world’s leading experts by saying, “All these climate change models look like a bunch of spaghetti.” Director Gregg Kerr defended the fossil fuel industry by asking, as if this were a serious question, “Are we going to stop energy production and starve to death?”
He convinced the university that any mention of climate change was politically untenable. So Dr. Steve Gray, the state climatologist, met with fierce administrative resistance when he fulfilled his obligations to the people of Wyoming and spoke about climate change.
Eventually, Gray realized that “there was no chance to expand the program to better meet the State’s needs.” He left Wyoming for the US Geological Survey’s Climate Science Center in Alaska, where, Gray says, “It’s not hard for people to see the relevance of climate change when your village is falling into a river as the permafrost melts.” So it is that Steve Gray was the last state climatologist of Wyoming.
In 2014, nobody would’ve foreseen a problem with updating the Next Generation Science Standards, unless they were privy to emails from the chairman of the State Board of Education. Ron Micheli objected to the inclusion of climate change as “fact” rather than “theory” in the Next Generation Science Standards and he insisted that, “The ice pack is expanding [and] the climate is cooling.”
In the waning minutes of the spring legislative session, Wyoming’s politicians passed a budget footnote prohibiting the use of state funds to implement the science standards. The bill’s author explained that the standards treat “man-made climate change as settled fact… We are the largest energy producing state in the country, so are we going to concede that?” At issue was not the veracity of the science but the vitality of the energy companies. The governor defended the use of ideological indoctrination with a rhetorical question, saying: “Are the Next Generation Science Standards…going to fit what we want in Wyoming?”
We live in a time in which people take it to be normal that most everything is treated as a commodity—including speech. And in this frenzied marketplace, the energy industry has purchased academic positions, scientific questions, and classroom curricula.
But perhaps there’s hope. Prompted by years of legislative and corporate meddling, the editorial board of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle [subscription required] put the situation into stark terms:
What is the value of academic freedom? That’s the question all Wyomingites should be asking themselves. To state lawmakers, it is a commodity that can be bought and sold, like coal or oil… What was once non-negotiable at UW now has a price tag on it. Lawmakers have sold the school to the highest bidder—the energy industry…
The journalists also incisively portrayed the nature of self-censorship, which may be the most insidious manifestation of oppression in the scientific community. There is no doubt that researchers simply decide not to pursue certain lines of inquiry, fearing retribution by legislators, CEOs and administrators. But my colleagues at the University of Wyoming have been adamant that they will take what comes, rather than asking me to be quiet. Living behind a carbon curtain of silence is too high a price to pay.