How to Deal With the Energy Boom: A Lethargy in Three Parts

This is not the first time that energy development has blitzed the Rockies. In the euphoria, we’ve forgotten certain fundamentals of the energy economy. This is a three-part examination of those fundamentals, and how to deal with them.I moved to Wyoming in 1976 in the midst of an energy boom. I was a part-time writer and editor for the environmental biweekly High Country News, which was then published in Lander, Wyoming. The big news in the West in those days was -guess what? – runaway energy development along with its impact on what everybody called the “quality of life.”

We wrote an endless stream of stories about the social, economic and environmental impacts of the influx of money and people into isolated communities largely unprepared to deal with them.

You could publish those 30-year-old stories today, changing only the names, and provide a clear look at the current debate over oil and gas development on Colorado’s Western Slope. In fact, in 2005 I wrote a piece on oil and gas drilling near Pinedale, Wyoming for Wilderness, the magazine of The Wilderness Society, in which the issues covered were virtually identical to an article I wrote on the same topic for the same magazine in 1978.

I promised myself after this recent Wilderness piece that I wasn’t ever again going to write about this topic. Before I covered energy booms, I was an optimist. I believed that people could learn from experience. But the blinkered enthusiasm of those who, with a straight face, boost the virtues of the “energy economy” only drives me to despair. History, unfortunately, is firmly on my side in this.

There are certain fundamentals to the “energy economy” that are forgotten as soon as a boom hits. The first fundamental is that every boom is followed by a bust. No one ever expects this bust – wells capped and abandoned, the aluminum siding of trailers detached, blowing down streets, unemployment benefits running out, communities in tatters. They don’t expect it because somehow this boom is different, some prestidigitation has occurred in the energy economy and there is no end in sight to the cash it sprinkles like palm fronds on the road before the advancing four-by-fours.

In one of Jim Spencer’s pieces on this site, he quotes Wyoming Economic Analysis Division administrator Buck McVeigh saying, “Elected officials think this one is different.”

In preparation for this piece, I called former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a Democrat, who term covered the late 80s and early 90s. He said, “I’ve been through a number of booms in my life, and they’ve been short-term … In Wyoming, there’s a feeling that this isn’t a short-term flash-in-the pan.”

Now I take second place to no one in my respect for former Gov. Sullivan. But he and McVeigh are wrong. There has been no fundamental change in energy economics. Not yet. This energy boom will be followed by a bust. I don’t know what the cause will be. Maybe there will be lull in the Middle East. Maybe Saudi Arabia will boost oil production to “stabilize oil prices.” Maybe an asteroid full of oil will crash into Rangely. I don’t know. The boosters think every boom is going to last forever. No one ever sees the bust coming. But there always is one.