A continuing energy boom in the Rocky Mountains and Northern Great Plains is reshaping the future of what’s powering America, and we’re launching a new reporting project to keep track of that.
Through Inside Energy, we’re teaming up with public radio and television stations in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota to explore the complex energy issues affecting our lives.
The three states are feeling this new energy economy differently, and it’s changing political realities in different ways.
Per capita, Wyoming is the biggest energy producer in the country.
“By far,” said Wyoming State Treasurer Mark Gordon. “Texas actually produces a little more energy, but they have a lot more people.”
And as you can see in our graph on production levels of the three states, almost 75 percent of Wyoming’s production comes from coal, and state pays for so much with coal taxes:
- A ton of school funding, including almost all school construction.
- A massive portion of the state’s general fund.
- It allows the state to go without an income tax.
It’s a lot of eggs to put in the coal basket, though,especially the last few years.
“There’s a lot of concern, particularly in the short term, that coal is not in favor,” Gordon said.
Demand for coal is trending downward, partly from concerns over and regulations on pollution. It’s also because of the rise of America’s newest energy gold rush—an oil and gas boom in places like the Bakken in North Dakota.
Thomas Wilson joined the Army in 2008 and served in Iraq as a machine gunner. He attended West Point until a back injury sent him home to Wyoming. He’d been working as a Sheriff’s deputy for the last year.
Then, a few weeks ago when he took a job on an oil rig in North Dakota. He started out making $10 an hour more than he did at the Sheriff’s office, working two weeks on, two weeks off.
“It’s hard to compete with a job where you only work half a year,” he said.
A lot of people like Wilson are pouring into North Dakota looking for opportunity. New fracking technologies have transformed the state in the last decade. GDP has more than doubled; unemployment is the lowest in the nation. However, that’s created problems of its own with housing, schools, roads, and infrastructure.
While officials in Wyoming are worrying about the future of coal, North Dakota is trying to figure out how to manage explosive growth.
In Colorado, it’s yet another issue.
The fracking revolution and fracking wealth have come to this state, too.
But here, so much is happening right in the middle of town.
About 400 feet off the southeast corner of the Northridge High School track, there stands a two story wall of what looks like giant brown throw pillows. It’s a sound dampening wall encircling a drilling operation.
Fracking operations continue popping up in and around Greeley. Like in many other places around the state, locals are worrying about air and water pollution from the sites or explosions if something were to go wrong.
“We should be able to have some say in where they put these drilling locations,” said Angela Kirkpatrick, who met with a few other concerned mothers at a proposed Greeley fracking site near their kids’ elementary school. “We obviously don’t want them that close to our children and we don’t want them in our backyards.”
Five communities in Colorado have implemented outright bans on fracking, bans the state is challenging in court. Sara Barwinski is another local mom. She said Greeley isn’t looking to go as far as a ban.
“We’re an oil and gas town and there’s a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on this,” she said.
This tension, between jobs, quality of life and booming industry is exactly what we’ll be exploring here at Inside Energy in the coming weeks and months.