Emails: Coal Lobby Threatened University Officials Over Art Project, Warning They Can’t ‘Hide Behind Academic Freedom’

How insecure is the coal industry?

Enough that coal lobbyists and coal-friendly lawmakers threatened to pull millions of dollars from the University of Wyoming if they didn’t take down an art installation they deemed offensive — reminding school officials of “the industries that feed them.”

According to emails acquired by the Casper Star Tribune, officials from the University of Wyoming received a barrage of threats over the last year from mining officials, coal companies, and lawmakers furious about an art piece installed on campus last July that drew a loose connection between coal, climate change, and pine beetle infestations.

And the threats worked.

The piece, called “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around,” featured a spiral of beetle-infested pine logs covered in coal. Artist Chris Drury said the installation was not a political statement. “I’m not trying to shove it down everyone’s throat, but I hope people will have a conversation” about climate change, he said when the sculpture was first installed.

It was meant to stay until at least 2013 — and possibly stay indefinitely and slowly decay over time. But due to strong pressure from the fossil fuel industry, the sculpture didn’t even make it a year.

The initial public reaction from industry was frustrated, but tempered. State mining officials called it “disappointing,” but also said they were “very supportive” of academic freedom.

Privately, however, the fossil fuel industry and sympathetic lawmakers were threatening the school. In one email to major donors and fellow fossil fuel executives, the president of Wyoming’s Petroleum Institute even scoffed that the university would try to “hide behind academic freedom.”

The Star Tribune reported on the email correspondence:

The energy industry pays millions in taxes, royalties and fees, he noted. Left unsaid: Those millions flow through state coffers to the university.

“Don, what kind of crap is this?” Loomis asked.

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, fired off an email to oil and gas company officials and major university donors slamming the university for the sculpture.

“The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate,” Hinchey wrote. “They always hide behind academic freedom but their policies and actions can change if they so choose.”

Hinchey sent his message to a number of Wyoming oil and gas business, civic leaders and university donors.

Top university officials, including at least one trustee, worked the phones to answer concerns from coal companies, including Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak Energy. Peabody wrote that the sculpture threatened its willingness to donate $2 million.

It wasn’t just coal companies and associations stepping up the pressure. State lawmakers also jumped into the battle, threatening to cut off funding streams and investigate who allowed the sculpture to be installed:

Legislators, primarily from coal-rich Campbell County, wrote university officials. They threatened to restrict the university’s funding, called for a hunt to find out which university officials knew about the sculpture ahead of time and decried the university for not knowing about the piece.

“It never ceases to amaze me how the UW invites folks in that spit in the face of the very system that writes the checks to pay the bills at the university,” wrote Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, in an email to Buchanan.

One influential legislator threatened the university’s funding, and later the committee of senators and representatives in charge of budget decisions demanded an accounting of art at the university, both what it was and how it was paid for.

“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,” Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, wrote in an email to university officials.

“We are going to get to the bottom of who knew what and when they knew it,” Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, wrote in an email to UW trustee John Macpherson on July 21, 2011, more than a week after the sculpture hit the news.

The artistic witch hunt served its purpose. School officials caved and pulled the sculpture down prematurely. In public, they said it was due to water damage. But the emails obtained by the Star Tribune show those statements were “not true.”

Immediately after deciding to take it down, one official notified critical lawmakers that the piece as “being demolished.”

The coal was then used for the only way these critics saw fit: it was burned.