Boom time – and worrying times – in Wyoming
July 20, 2006
Here are some interesting facts about Wyoming. It’s likely to have a $1.8 billion budget surplus next year, even though state spending has jumped by more than 50 percent in the past two years. In the past quarter, Wyoming had the highest per-capita income growth rate in the nation and the third-lowest unemployment. It usually ranks at the top of the “best business climate” charts, because it has no personal or corporate income taxes.It is a state full of new roadwork, a place where you hear story after story about the flash floods of cash washing through the schools. It is also the least-populous state, with fewer people than Washington, D.C., where one of its best-known residents, Dick Cheney, happens to work.The other interesting fact, of course, is that the country wants a lot more of what Wyoming has in abundance – coal and natural gas – and is willing to pay for it. The price of natural gas at the wellhead has gone up by more than 150 percent in the past seven years, often spiking much higher. That, coupled with the Bush administration’s freewheeling approach to energy development, has resulted in a petroleum boom that is transforming the state.The coal and gas and oil industries have siphoned off workers from nearly every other field. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality, for instance, is having trouble filling vacancies because it can’t compete in salaries with the industry it’s supposed to be regulating. Rents in Gillette – in the heart of coal country – have skyrocketed. There is now a rush hour on what used to be quiet country highways. Marching bands have sprung up in towns that have been without marching bands for a decade and more.Wyoming knows a boom when it sees one because it has seen them before. And, to its credit, the state is trying to find a way to feed some of its revenue into programs that will help even out the shock when the boom busts – or simply tapers off. It is putting large sums into its Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, which collects a portion of the severance tax paid for Wyoming minerals, and it is adding to what it calls its Legislative Stabilization Reserve, a temporary savings account. The state has at last created a wildlife trust fund first proposed in 1982 but regularly defeated in the state Legislature, and it has endowed scholarship programs and the building of new schools.It’s hard to argue with prosperity, but a lot of people in Wyoming are worrying about its ultimate costs. Over the past few years, for instance, the rush to develop coal-bed methane, a process that involves extracting methane from water pumped out of coal seams, has done enormous harm to the landscape of the Powder River Basin in north-central Wyoming and to the reputation of the petroleum industry. In the western part of the basin, near Sheridan, many of the companies that rushed in to dig coal-bed wells have gone belly up, leaving the state, or no one, to pay the costs of mitigating the damage.But the problem is bigger than that. Since George Bush took office, the federal government has turned the American West into a gas and oil open house. In nearly every Western state, the Bureau of Land Management’s main function seems to be auctioning off petroleum leases.Wyoming has always been a pro-drilling, pro-digging state, but now it finds itself trying to manage a free-for-all that looks to many people as if it has gotten out of hand. The governor has sided with environmentalists, for example, in successfully protesting new leases near the Wyoming Range. Sen. Craig Thomas, a Republican, has argued that national forests should be off limits to drilling after Washington tried to offer for leasing nearly 175,000 acres in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.The boom would be hard enough to handle if it were merely a reflection of good times. But this boom gets portrayed as a response to a national crisis – the demand for energy security. The mining laws, which assume that mining is the highest, best use of the land, already make ordinary people feel disenfranchised. Recasting those laws in terms of a national emergency compounds the problem. What polarizes the debate even further is the subtle character of the Wyoming landscape. It’s hard enough to protect the Bridger-Teton National Forest, vastly harder still to protect a place like the Green River Basin. To a driller it’s a wasteland ready for the drilling rig. To an environmentalist, it’s delicate habitat.The real question isn’t whether Wyoming can stabilize its prosperity. It’s whether it can protect values and resources that are not as easily monetized as coal, oil and natural gas, or translated into the terms of national security. But then this is the question the whole nation faces.Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote this article for The New York Times.