The time was when Wyoming legislators levied severance taxes for the purpose of reimbursing us for the extraction of the state’s wealth. The idea was that if corporations make money taking that wealth they should reimburse the citizens by paying a tax.
Today there are some key Wyoming politicians who think that by paying their taxes, the big oil, gas, and coal companies have bought an ownership interest in the state or at least its only four-year university.
Recently House Speaker Tom Lubnau was a guest on public radio. He was asked about the role of coal in climate change. Afterward, Tom posted this message on Facebook. “I should have known better than to go on a Wyoming Public Radio show about coal exports. The low point was when I told the show's host her question was preposterous. It makes me sad when a UW employee, who's (sic) salary is paid largely by extractive industries, advocates against extractive industries.”
It’s not the first time Lubnau’s been unhappy with UW employees who dared to question the environmental impact of mining. Last year the University responded to his criticism of a piece of art that the Wyoming Mining Association believed to be an objectionable statement about coal. The University destroyed the artwork. The University, Lubnau argued, shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds it.
There’s another sign the industry exercises undue control of the university. Recently an oil company, the Hess Corporation, became the largest corporate donor in UW’s history. Hess’s 10 million dollar donation will be used for research on tapping hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves. Hess’s president says it will be good for business.
It is undoubtedly good for his business but does anyone think the UW School of Energy Resources can conduct legitimate research on fracking or climate change when it relies so heavily of such “donations”?
Since 2007, UW has collected over $40 million from energy companies.
Faculty members told a reporter they have “deep concerns” about where UW’s headed, but are afraid that voicing concerns could jeopardize their jobs. Lubnau’s Facebook post would explain their fears.
There’s a third bad omen. Recently powerful members of the legislature began meeting with UW administrators to “clarify” what they want from the school. Rep. Eli Bebout who chairs the Appropriations Committee, which controls the UW budget, said, "I just think the University, the students, the faculty, everybody should understand in our state, the blessing we have by having the minerals and the importance of those revenue streams."
Perhaps there are other things they should also understand.
Legislators fronting for the mining industry are attempting to replace the appointed UW Trustees and micro-manage the school. Those legislators have little interest in academic freedom and objective research. Their goal is to make the University of Wyoming serves the interests of the mining industry.
Interestingly, this trend toward polluting Wyoming’s education system isn’t confined to the University. In 2013 the legislature enacted legislation requiring the governor’s office to work with industry to develop public school curriculum teaching students the benefits of energy development.
Without politicians willing to “offend” the industry, Wyoming would have continued giving away resources. As it was, Wyoming passed its severance tax 64 years after the first state began taxing mineral extraction. Republican governor Stan Hathaway led the enactment of that tax in 1969. Hathaway’s leadership created a Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, funded with additional taxes on minerals. Republicans in the legislature supported Hathaway over energetic energy-company lobbying against both proposals.
Hathaway and his GOP were willing to buck the industry to do what was right for the state.
The severance tax reimburses the state for its loss of non-renewable wealth. Companies removing our coal, oil, and gas fill the hole with a check. In a rather Kafkaesque twist, Lubnau, Bebout and other politicians seem to think it’s the energy industry that is doing the state a favor.
The University, students, faculty, and alumni should understand the threat this kind of thinking poses to the school’s legitimacy.