The future of Wyoming’s energy industry likely lies in hands nowhere near Wyoming.
Like it or not, Wyomingites — all 500,000 of us — cannot consume all the energy our resource-rich state is capable of producing. And that’s factoring in millennials like me who are no stranger to tweeting while watching television and playing computer solitaire.
It’s a plain fact that we must ship our energy elsewhere. Thanks to pipelines and trains, our natural gas and oil producers have been able to do just that.
But now, two energy sectors are pinning their futures on the ability to export their resources to the west. And they may be right.
Coal and wind are struggling in Wyoming. In coal’s case, a longtime giant industry has run into recent obstacles. In wind’s case, an emerging industry is struggling to break through.
Demand for coal is on the decline. Mild weather, lower natural gas prices and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have each played a role in the weakening demand for the mineral, and many coal-fired power plants are shutting down or switching to another fuel source.
Wind is also struggling to take hold in the Cowboy State. A recently-circulated fact sheet by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management shows only seven proposed wind projects on federal lands, and only the massive Chokecherry-Sierra Madre project seems to have much of a chance of moving significantly forward this year. New projects face concerns over sage grouse, viewshed and transmission lines.
But while each industry is having its own problems right now, lobbyists and advocates for each point to the western horizon with optimism.
Coal companies are signing deals and fielding calls from proposed Pacific Northwest export terminals that could one day ship as many as 150 million total tons to coal-hungry and emerging Asian markets like China, India and South Korea. Most companies already ship their products around the country, but the huge demand across the Pacific Ocean could provide an international market for Wyoming coal, demand never before met from the Powder River Basin.
Wind lobbyists also tout exporting from Wyoming, but domestically. The state’s big wind buyer could be a couple of state lines to the southwest, in California. A recently-released study by the University of Wyoming showed that importing wind from projects in Rawlins, Casper and other locations could help California utilities stabilize wind’s unpredictability, a common criticism of the technology.
But before either export project can take hold, proposals need to be vetted. Terminals and transmission lines need to be built. And states need to work together.
Wyoming coal will have to move via rail and barge through Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Wyoming wind will have to be transmitted via any one of several proposed power lines, slotted for routes through Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada, among other possible states.
None of those states are Wyoming. But each of those states needs to understand why these industries are important to some in the Cowboy State.
Opposition to coal exports is strong with some in coastal states, and California’s showing a reluctance to buy renewable power from non-California sources. So, in order to export our resources, Wyoming’s going to have to speak up. It’s going to hold meetings of governors and regulators, conferences and hard-hat-clad tours of existing and potential coal and wind project sites Wyoming.
Some of that is already in the works. Wyoming wind lobbyists have made frequent trips to California to tell Golden State officials that the wind blows hardest and at the right times here. Gov. Matt Mead has been active writing letters and submitting comments on environmental assessments for at least one coal terminal, and outreach to the Pacific Northwest is part of the governor’s proposed energy strategy.
That’s the kind of forward thinking it’s going to take to keep Wyoming coal and wind viable for years to come. In fact, I think it’s fair to say Wyoming could, as a state, do even more to create relationships and reach understandings with our neighbors to the west.
Now more than ever before, the Wyoming energy industry relies on states not starting with a “W” and ending with a “g.”
It’s time to open the lines for as much communication as possible. Without that interaction, both rail and power lines that could possibly sustain key Wyoming industries may never open.