Wyoming, the epicenter of U.S. fossil fuel extraction, is hemorrhaging jobs, the New York Times reported today:
Tumbling prices for oil and gas, along with bankruptcies in the coal industry, have pummeled Wyoming’s energy-dependent economy and eroded a thin safety net for poor and older residents. Energy development helped Wyoming weather the nation’s thin years seven or eight years ago, but now officials estimate that energy companies have shed some 5,500 jobs — a huge number in a state with 580,000 residents.
The coal bust is stark. U.S. coal-fired electricity plants produced nearly 15 percent fewer kilowatt-hours last year, which is down almost a third from their 2007 peak. Total coal mining fell 10 percent, to a 30-year low, and while 2015 state coal extraction data aren’t available, Wyoming, the source of 40 percent of U.S. coal output, of which almost all is exported over huge distances by train or “by wire,” surely took a huge hit. And though production of “hydrocarbons” (oil and gas) is up nationwide, much of the action is now in fracking regions like North Dakota and Pennsylvania; moreover, drilling of new wells has plummeted along with prices.
As the Times reports, the job losses are exacerbated by parochial decisions by the Republican-dominated state government including a refusal to expand Medicaid under President Obama’s health care law. “A literacy program that helped people get high-school equivalency degrees was eliminated,” added the Times, “as were programs that provided dental care and property-tax rebates to low-income old people.”
This is painful to read on many levels, which for me include indelible memories of good times in Wyoming and Montana in the mid- and late seventies. As I wrote, years later:
Defending the American West from ruinous energy development was a particularly intense, gut-level part of that struggle for many of us, including me. I was living in New York then but spending as much time as I could in the Northern Rockies, hiking the high country and getting out onto the land, meeting ranchers, Indians, environmentalists and fellow eco-freaks. I fished for my breakfast in Shoshone streams, played barrelhouse piano in a Montana renewable-energy road show, and got high inhaling Amory Lovins’ Soft Energy Paths at 12,000 feet in the Wind River range.
The irony is that the energy technologies we insisted could take the place of environmentally and economically ruinous fossil fuel exploitation have finally arrived . . . and Wyoming is perfectly positioned to take advantage. The state ranks #8 out of all 50 in wind energy potential, behind only Texas, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and the Dakotas, according to estimates by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The NREL data further suggest that developing only the windiest areas in the state — where 80 meter-tall turbines could achieve 30% annual capacity factors — could generate more than 1.9 trillion kWh a year, or triple the electricity now generated from the state’s entire annual coal output. Yet actual Wyoming wind production is around a thousand times less. (See calculations below; note that NREL’s wind potential excludes a quarter of the state’s windy lands that are protected, developed or otherwise inappropriate, and draws on 2010 assumptions that predate recent new productivity from larger turbines and more sophisticated controls.) Yes, unlocking that potential requires big investments in transmission, but the hellish processions of massive unit trains bearing Wyoming coal to the Midwest and South could diminish and cease.
Wyoming looks well positioned for solar as well. The map at left suggests that the Equality State (yep, that’s its motto) is in the top ten, behind California, Nevada, Texas, the Four Corner states, and perhaps Nebraska and Oklahoma. Actual solar electricity generation in Wyoming is nil, however.
Many forces have stopped extensive wind and solar development. Some, like the nation’s only wind production tax, are state-specific; others, like the absence of a carbon price, are more generic. Both of these reflect and reinforce the political power of the fossil fuel industry along with cultural and cognitive biases that valorize carbon fuels at the expense of sustainable energy.
Only time will tell whether the latest downturn in Wyoming’s cycles of boom and bust will lead to a change of heart and in public policy and enable the jobs disappearing from the extractive industries to be replaced by jobs in renewables. For now, this state of rugged but empty landscapes is about to get even lonelier.
Calculations for paragraph preceding solar map: Wyoming coal mines produced just under 400 million tons in 2014. Applying standard factors of 8,500 btu/lb for Powder River Basin coal and 1 kWh generated per 10,000 btu released in combustion, that tonnage would have generated 680 billion kWh. The 2015 figure is almost certainly less, and probably under a third of the 1,944 billion kWh annual Wyoming wind potential estimated by NREL using 2010 technology assumptions.