CHEYENNE — A trio of Wyoming businesspeople say the future of the state depends on diversifying its economy, developing a statewide water policy, and investing in new technology and infrastructure.
Two of the speakers, members of a panel on Wyoming’s future at the Wyoming Business Alliance’s annual meeting in Cheyenne, said they were troubled by Wyoming’s commodity-dependent economy.
Wyoming, a leading producer of oil, natural gas, coal and uranium, consistently finds itself at the whim of global energy markets, whose downturns in demand can sap tax revenue and scar state and local government budgets.
“I propose to you that, 10 years from now, if we’re still one of the few surplus states subject to great cash flows from our mineral interests and our natural resources here, then we’ll have squandered a great opportunity to diversify our base,” said David Sparks, executive vice president of transportation systems and services for Jackson-based TransCore and a board member of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.
Wyoming needs to invest in research to add value to its mineral resources instead of just shipping out bulk commodities, Sparks said. He added that it should focus on strengthening its transportation network — both roads and other ways to transport products from the state, including energy pathways (pipelines and power lines). The state also needs to more deeply invest in research to diversify its economy, he said.
Sparks also said he’s afraid China might beat the United States in research for “clean coal” technology, which will reduce emissions from burning coal for power.
If China gets ahead in that field, “it’s going to be hard for us to recover and change or diversify, if you will, anything more than being a bulk commodity shipper of some great, low-sulfur coal to other markets — the same business we’ve had,” he said. “And we wouldn’t have taken a chance to change, migrate and diversify to these other areas.”
Jim Willms, president and chief executive of Cheyenne-based Unicover Corp., also hailed the need for building on the value of the state’s raw resources before selling them out of state.
Wyoming’s bountiful financial reserves, and incoming tax revenue socked away in the state’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account — the so-called “rainy-day” fund — should be invested in the state’s infrastructure, which could prove key to economic diversification, Willms said.
“Economic diversification is critical in the long term because . . . eventually our vast mineral resources will be depleted,” he said.
Water, always a sensitive issue in Wyoming, is a vulnerable lifeblood of the state, said Wanda Burget, director of sustainable development for Peabody Energy, a major coal producer in Wyoming.
She highlighted several vulnerabilities for water availability in the state, including droughts, the health of the state’s watersheds — largely supplied by mountain snowpack — and the state’s unique role as the headwaters for water supplies to many parts of the country.
Coal from the Powder River Basin is full of water. Burget recognized the Wyoming Research Institute’s work to establish a way to procure the large amount of water shipped out of the state in the coal — about 720 gallons per 1,000 tons of coal, she said.
Wyoming’s water supply and the development of the state’s mineral resources are tightly linked, Burget said.
“I believe the time is right to consider a broad-based, stakeholder-driven process to review and update the state’s long-term water development and information planning effort, and to develop a water policy for the state of Wyoming,” she said. “The future of Wyoming and the health and welfare of its citizens depend on it.”