Guest column by Judith Kohler
March 19, 2013
Relatively speaking, Wyoming’s economy is looking good. Its unemployment rate is well below the national rate. Its two largest cities were among the fastest-growing in the country last year.
But Wyoming is no North Dakota, as U.S. Rep Cynthia Lummis pointed out in a recent congressional hearing. The Cowboy state appears to be suffering from energy-boom envy, if Lummis is typical of her fellow Wyomingites.
The same day Lummis spoke longingly of the oil boom that’s rocking western North Dakota and the industry, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a news release trumpeting an oil and gas boom driven population growth “in or at least near the Great Plains and West Texas.”
The release goes on to say that “two areas in Wyoming (Casper and Cheyenne), along with Manhattan, Kan., and Bismarck, N.D., were also among the 20 fastest-growing metropolitan areas.” In fact, Casper’s 3 percent population increase from 2011 to 2012 made it the country’s eighth-fastest growing metro area. Midland, Texas, was first.
That didn’t stop Lummis from bemoaning that Wyoming isn’t in the same class as North Dakota, which owes its oil rush to the Bakken, a massive formation that stretches into Montana and Saskatchewan. Lummis told the House Subcommittee on Energy Mineral Resources last week that a big difference is while nearly half of Wyoming is managed by the federal government, most of the land being drilled up north is private.
Thus, no onerous federal regulations intended to protect the public’s lands, health and welfare to impede a drilling bonanza.
“It’s easier to get a permit to drill and, hence, a job in North Dakota than it is in Wyoming,” Lummis continued.
As a result, many workers have left their families in Wyoming to commute to North Dakota “because the jobs are in North Dakota for oil and gas production and no longer in Wyoming,” Lummis said.
Her remarks came during the subcommittee’s hearing “America’s Onshore Energy Resources: Creating Jobs, Securing America and Lowering Prices.” Chairman Doug Lamborn of Colorado made it clear that he believes not enough holes are being punched in Western public lands. He asserted that the Obama administration has issued “duplicative and burdensome regulations” and withdrawn “hundreds of thousands of acres” from energy production.
Committee member Lummis said the administration has created obstacles to drilling on federal lands. Her state has seen a decline in jobs the last four years, Lummis said, although she conceded that Wyoming’s unemployment rate “remains substantially below the nation’s unemployment rate.”
Wyoming’s jobless rate fell to 4.9 percent in December from 5.1 percent, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reported. The national rate was 7.8 percent for the same period.
And while Wyoming is no North Dakota, it’s more an issue of geography than federal policy. People are drilling like crazy in North Dakota because that’s where the oil is. Much of the oil nationwide is under private land, according to a recent report by the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities. Even in the Rocky Mountain West, which has a big chunk of the nation’s public lands, “89 percent of shale oil and mixed oil and gas plays underlie nonfederal lands,” according to the report “Follow the Oil.”
Here’s another factor: oil, which is plentiful in North Dakota, is selling for big bucks while natural gas, which is plentiful in Wyoming, is selling at rock-bottom prices.
Give us another boom, please!
There’s a kind of plea in parts of the West where economies have long been tied to the waxing and waning of mineral production: “Dear God, give us another boom and we promise not to waste it this time.”
Rep. Lummis was in the Wyoming Legislature in 1992 when the region was still struggling with fallout from a big oil bust. State budgets were tight. I was part of the press corps covering the Wyoming Legislature then and we wrote several stories about lawmakers fighting over across-the-board spending cuts. It was a rough time.
Energy production is an important part of the economy. It’s necessary. It’s also a complex issue. Instead of hearings that reduce energy policy to ideology or ignore market forces, politicians should consider developing a comprehensive, forward-looking national energy plan that recognizes other important economic sectors – hunting, fishing tourism, recreation and agriculture. Those are the steady, sustainable sectors that can tide you over until the next big boom – providing they don’t get run over in the rush.
Judith Kohler is communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Rocky Mountains and Prairies Regional Center.
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