For decades, Wyoming workers and the rest of our country enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Oil workers and coal miners provided the nation with a steady supply of energy. In return, those workers could count on well-paying, blue-collar jobs that offered an opportunity to buy a home, support a family and send kids to college.
That arrangement started to fray over the past decade, thanks in part to structural changes in how the U.S. powers itself. Demand for fossil fuels has been tempered by climate change, new technology and competition from renewables. More recently, we’ve suffered through the decline of coal, a global oil price war and a pandemic that has bled demand for fuel.
Now, it feels like the arrangement has come undone.
In the past week, President Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders designed to address climate change and reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. One in particular has major implications for our state. It requires the U.S. Department of Interior to halt approval of new oil and gas leases on public lands “to the extent possible.” More than half of oil and gas production in Wyoming comes from federal minerals. So the impact of such a move will be profound.
The moratorium has sparked fear and outrage across Wyoming, which is already suffering through an economic downturn. There is ample concern about how Wyoming will pay for public schools and government services without a healthy energy sector. Wyoming’s tax structure is set up to be reliant on the extraction industries. What do we do when fewer minerals are being extracted?
But more than anything, we worry about our workers.
The Biden administration says it will create “good-paying union jobs” as part of its efforts to move the country to a future with less reliance on fossil fuels. The administration envisions finding employment for energy workers by restoring former mine sites or capping abandoned wells, among other things.
But there are many unresolved questions that demand answers. How many jobs will there really be for Wyoming’s energy workers? How exactly will they be retrained? And who pays their bills in the meantime?
It is easy to say jobs will be available – just as it has been easy for Wyoming leadership to tout economic diversification – but will that require workers to move in the process? Will those jobs be comparable? What about the workers who live in small towns that might not have the infrastructure for an ambitious new green energy project? What happens to those communities?
Then there are the service industries that support oil and gas. Will the machinists and welders at shops in Casper find jobs in this new reality? What about the untold number of small businesses that cater primarily to rig workers and miners? Will those businesses receive support through this transition? If the past is any indication, it is hard to imagine all of this talk turning into anything else in our oil and gas based economy, not without severe effects due to ripping off the band-aid.
There’s also the question of the practicality of retraining someone for new work. Think of a worker who headed to the oilfield after high school. For years – for decades – he earned a living that supported a mortgage and a family. How easy will it be for someone in their 40s or 50s to transition to a new job? Will they be able to compete with someone who possesses more tech skills and fewer salary demands?
We could go on. The point here is not to argue that climate change isn’t real (it is) or that renewables are bad (they aren’t) or that our state leaders adequately prepared for this day (they didn’t). The point is that for a long time, our country relied on Wyoming’s oil workers and coal miners and welders and machinists to keep the lights on. Now, it owes those workers some assurance that our country won’t turn out the lights on them.