Reporting by Documented and POLITICO reveals that a widely cited study from the University of Wyoming on leasing federal lands for oil and gas extraction was secretly funded by the oil and gas industry.
The study, released in December of 2020 by a Wyoming state agency, makes no mention of funding from the oil and gas industry. Instead, the agency that published the study, the Wyoming Energy Authority, claimed the study was only funded by the Wyoming legislature. The Wyoming Governor’s Office and credulous reporters repeated the assertion that the study was funded solely by an appropriation in the Wyoming budget.
But the Wyoming budget appropriation for the study explicitly requires state funds to be matched dollar for dollar by “non-state funds”:
“The expenditure of this appropriation is conditioned upon a match of funds in a ratio of one dollar ($1.00) of appropriated general funds to not less than one dollar ($1.00) of matching funds from a nonstate source.”
When pressed by POLITICO, Wyoming Energy Authority Executive Director Glen Murrell admitted that the oil lobbying group Western Energy Alliance financed outreach and dissemination for the report. According to the Wyoming Governor’s energy advisor, Randall Luthi, the Western Energy Alliance was approached to split the cost with the state of Wyoming for the study sometime in early 2020. Western Energy Alliance president Kathleen Sgamma claims her group was unable to come up with the funds necessary, and settled for providing cash for publicity and outreach, totaling around $10,000. Neither the Wyoming Energy Authority nor the Western Energy Alliance has provided any documentation for their claims. Further complicating the matter, the Heartland Institute has written that the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association “commissioned” the report. The Heartland Institute, funded by fossil fuel money, is infamous for attacking climate change science and scientists.
While it is unclear exactly how much of the study was funded by the oil industry, it is clear that the study was conceived as a political attack on the public lands policy of President Joe Biden. The fact that Luthi, of the Wyoming Governor’s office, coordinated with the Western Energy Alliance in early 2020 - long before the study was conducted - indicates the study’s results were destined to be useful in the oil industry’s efforts to oppose Biden’s policies. (Luthi is a longtime oil lobbyist and onetime head of the offshore oil lobbying group National Ocean Industries Association).
The author of the study, Timothy Considine, has a long history of using his position at public institutions to produce materials for oil industry propaganda efforts. In 2010, the Pennsylvania State University requested a report co-authored by Considine be retracted out of concern that it failed to disclose it was funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition and “crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy.” The Marcellus Shale Coalition is a lobbying organization funded by oil and gas interest. Some of Considine’s career highlights include:
- Receiving funding from the Charles Koch Foundation;
- Authoring reports that attacked renewable portfolio standards for the Heartland Institute and played up the benefits of oil and gas leasing on federal lands for Richard Berman’s Employment Policies Institute;
- Contributed to the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s Energy In Depth
- Providing testimony on behalf of Murray Energy in a lawsuit the company filed against the EPA
- Producing research for coal company Cloud Peak Energy.
- Was the subject of a 2012 investigation by The Guardian
Much like his previous work, the Wyoming study has been brutally critiqued for biased assumptions. For instance, the study assumes the price of oil will never fall below $60 per barrel. Oil has been well below that price since 2019. The study also fails to consider public health benefits from reducing pollution, the costs of climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions, and future revenue to states from renewable energy production on public lands.
In spite of the deceptive funding behind the Wyoming study, the questionable history of the author, and glaring omissions of important mitigating factors, the study has received considerable uncritical treatment in the press. Even after the secret oil funding was revealed, NPR ran a story citing the study with no caveats. Western Energy Alliance’s Kathleen Sgamma cited the study in her appearances on Fox News and Fox and Friends broadcasts.
Documented continues to investigate this matter.
Photo of drilling rig in Wyoming by BLM Wyoming. Used under creative commons license.