The oil and gas industry is on the defensive, as pressure grows to limit climate pollution. So it’s relying on a tried and true strategy: influencing the data about the impacts of climate policies to control the political narrative.
In Wyoming, state officials spent $114,000 on a study by a University of Wyoming economics professor. It found that the Biden administration’s pause on new leases for drilling on public land would be ruinous for Western states that depend on industry revenues for public programs.
But the state never disclosed the industry’s heavy involvement in the development of the study, which Floodlight and Wyoming Public Media detail in this story based on public records obtained by Documented. Now, the study is being cited by Wyoming’s representatives in Congress, and its figures are popping up in dozens of Western newspaper articles, and even in the New York Times. READ MORE
This week, we go behind the scenes with our reporting partner Cooper McKim, who covers energy and natural resources for Wyoming Public Media. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
EH: For our readers who aren’t as familiar with Wyoming, tell us about it. What is the state’s relationship with fossil fuels?
CM: Fossil fuels are and have been fundamental to Wyoming's economy for decades. Around the 60s and 70s, the whole US switched over from a focus more on foreign oil, to a focus on coal. Wyoming took advantage of that by having the biggest coal basin in the country. It allowed the state to not really have to think about its revenue sources. It just didn't have an income tax, was able to build this massive rainy day fund. And then oil and gas started picking up too, especially with the fracking revolution.
Because of its contributions to schools, and infrastructure and county government, there's a lot of feeling of what citizens owe to fossil fuels...whether you went to college here and your tuition was cheaper because of resources, or just living here and not having to pay an income tax.
EH: So how is Wyoming responding as the Biden administration looks to limit drilling on federal lands?
CM: It's been very active, for even months before Biden's election, in talking about potential ways to combat it. Knowing as much as was humanly possible was certainly something that was discussed in the legislature...including helping fund reports to see what that the impact could be. Litigation is definitely a possibility.
EH: In our story together about this study, state officials and the industry are quite aligned in promoting fossil fuels. Is that usually the case?
CM: It's usually that they fall on the same side of an issue, because when the oil and gas industry benefits, Wyoming benefits.
EH: You published an investigation in the fall that is eerily similar to this story. What did you find?
CM: Typically, the state's pretty upfront about supporting industries that are fundamental to its revenue. In this instance, it wasn't quite as clear.
This nonprofit group (the Energy Policy Network) was not identifying itself by its backing from Wyoming, and yet it was very active in other states in combating the closure of coal plants—particularly ones that buy Wyoming coal. We tried (with Wyofile) to shed as much light on that through public records requests.
EH: You’re working on a podcast that’s kind of based on all this history. It’s called Carbon Valley, and it launches this month. In the promo for it you say:
In a warming world where coal is no longer king, it’s fall from grace is hitting Wyoming hard. At this turning point, state leaders have a decision: move on or double down?
Why are you looking at this now, and what do you hope to cover in Carbon Valley?
CM: Pretty much everybody is talking about the same question: what's next after coal. There's little doubt that coal has been in decline, though people many still disagree about whether it's due to government policies versus the rise of natural gas and the rise of renewable energy.
A lot of people in the state want to answer that question with a just transition or diversification—to, you know, recreation and things like that. But the state has that feeling of owing the industry, and it doesn't think that a resource that's so fundamental to its land needs to go away. So it's invested in finding a way to try to get rid of one of coal's most problematic aspects, which is its emissions.
It's already invested millions. It's been in discussion for over a decade. And the idea is, if we can make help make this technology work...maybe folks don’t need to keep closing down their coal plants. Maybe they can keep them open and keep buying Wyoming coal.
It is sort of a bipartisan effort in their eyes. But even though the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says carbon capture is necessary in many scenarios, it does not say coal has to be a part of it.
EH: What can we learn from what Wyoming is going through with coal's decline? Could we see something similar happening someday with oil and gas?
CM: The story of how economies choose to move on from an industry is a pretty common one in the US, and I think Wyoming could learn a lot by watching what happened in Appalachia, which is several years ahead. There's no reason to think the approach would be particularly different if oil and gas were to suddenly decline en masse. There's always resistance to change, but I think the most important issue is preserving communities. And not letting a place become a ghost town by holding out for too long before making decisions that impacts people's lives.
EH: What was your experience working with Floodlight? How is it different from your usual reporting process?
CM: It’s very helpful to work on an investigation with somebody who obviously has a lot of experience. I think it's always a good opportunity to work with other reporters. Period. Just to see how they do things differently and how they get a story done. I think this story easily could have taken two months. Instead, it took two weeks, because it was a very focused and concise effort. That made it much more efficient and effective.
EH: Well, thank you for the kind words. It’s definitely a testament to how efficient you are as well.
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