COLUMN: Wyoming’s next boom will be its last


Booming times for Wyoming’s oil, gas and coal industries might come again, but the next boom may be the last one, or, at any rate, the booms will become less and less significant. Perhaps something like open warfare breaking out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or a civil war within Russia, would reduce global energy output enough to create huge demands for our state’s fossil fuels, and prices will skyrocket, thus solving our state’s economic problems overnight. This, however, would only be putting off the inevitable; fossil fuels are being phased out. Most of Wyoming’s legislators don’t understand this.

Oil, gas and coal are commodities with abruptly swinging prices. This is because of events that are beyond our control. In fact, the higher that oil, gas and coal prices go, the faster that they can be replaced by solar and wind electricity.

This is because electricity that comes from the sun and wind does not come from a commodity.  This electricity comes from conditions that are incident to nature and they are harnessed by technologies that are falling in price — and getting better all the time. Their advantages, also, like being less polluting, are increasingly popular and necessary, all over the world.

Our country’s heavy use of oil, since “Colonel” Drake’s first “rock oil” well at Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, and with Wyoming getting into the action in 1883, with the first drilled well near Lander, hasn’t been all bad. The whales of the ocean, for example, were nearly hunted to extinction for their oils, then used for lighting and as lubricants. With oil drilling, the hunting of the whales mostly stopped, thus saving these magnificent mammals. Also, oil’s rise has been concurrent with the lengthening of human life spans, and material wealth. Still, things change, and sometimes for the best.

Booms and busts are characteristics of a fossil fuel economy. This is because of the simplest economic law: supply and demand. In Daniel Yergin’s outstanding book, The Prize, the author traces the many highs and lows of oil pricing, always related to supply and demand, which have been affected by industrialization, cars, modernizing navies, wars, increasing global wealth and population increase, innovations in oil production and distribution, and not least, the antics of eccentric tycoons.

There will be twists and turns and ups and downs, big and small, of the markets, but the trajectory is that someday, clean energy will replace dirty energy. For Wyoming, of course, the coming changes are of great weight. But we’re tough cowboys. We can face any reality that stampedes into our lives. We’ll get by. We also realize that sometimes it’s not a matter of getting what we want to get, but of getting what we’re going to get, and we just have to deal with it. But we don’t always vote for people who have this realistic view.

Would you be willing to pay more for electricity just because you love oil, gas, and coal so much? Perhaps a few people would, especially a few of the 584,000 or so Wyomingites. But what about those 40,000,000 Californians, outnumbering us by something like 68 to 1, who are the primary buyers of our energy? A seller of any product can rejoice when money is coming in quickly. He had better, however, become really realistic, creative and innovative when a new product comes on the market and promises to better please buyers, and for a lower price.

Meanwhile, for the last couple of years here in Wyoming, our Legislature has done absolutely nothing to consider ways to make our energy more attractive to buyers. We’ve just been sitting here watching people move out of the state, and hoping for commodity prices to climb. We slash budgets and complain and blame.

Then, suddenly, out of a dark and threatening cloud, no lightning flashes at all, but instead a bill by some of our legislators materializes to make solar and wind-produced electricity more expensive — by way of what are surely unworkable, unfair and maybe illegal penalties. This is government overreach of the worst kind. Senate File 71 proposes to financially penalize the use of wind and solar electricity. The sponsoring politicians are: Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance; Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs; Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower; Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs; Roy Edwards, R-Gillette; Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne; and David Miller, R-Riverton.  These guys could cost investments in Wyoming that are worth billions, and all in an attempt to stave off the inevitable.

(Tom Gagnon is a Rock Springs resident.)