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Wyoming's advantage

Oct 19, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

No matter what direction the nation's energy path turns, we look pretty good

The 2012 presidential campaign has been enhanced and enlivened by the addition of frank discussion on America's energy policy. Wyoming's voters have their preferences politically, but we're looking pretty good no matter where the energy path leads.

Coal has been a primary point of discussion this fall in the energy debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, and it would be reasonable to assume, therefore, that Wyoming would be part of that discussion. We're the No. 1 coal producer in the nation by a huge margin, mining and shipping more coal than the next 10 biggest coal states combined.

But, no, from listening to the presidential campaign one would think that all the coal in the world is dug in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. These, you see, are three presidential "swing states," where the outcome of the election is still in doubt. Wyoming? Not a swing state. Romney probably could be convicted of a felony and still carry our state, which has voted for the Republican nominee for president in 14 of the past 15 elections, including 11 in a row. That will become 12 in a row Nov. 6.

Ohio produces about 28 million tons of coal a year. Virginia about 20 million. Wyoming? 430 million tons. But Ohio has 18 electoral votes up for grabs. Wyoming has just three, with their outcome not in doubt. So there's no need to even mention Wyoming in the feisty coal debate between Obama and Romney. Our three electoral votes are not in play, so neither is Wyoming coal -- as a political tool, that is.

As an economic tool, however, Wyoming coal will be the primary player as coal policy changes in the U.S. So we're listening carefully as the candidates spell out their objectives for coal. Central to the debate is the requirement that electric power plants using coal cut down sharply on the amount of pollution entering the air through the smokestack. That's part of the reason coal output and employment have slipped this year, but as an economic factor the bigger issue is the relatively low price and high supply of natural gas. Numerous power plants have converted to natural gas already, and others plan to.

But that's not all bad for Wyoming. We're a huge natural gas state as well. The industry doesn't employ the numbers that coal does, but it is a major employer and giant taxpayer. Encana USA plans a huge new gas field in Fremont County over the next few years, and our pipeline capacity is growing as well.

Further, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was in our state just last week to announce approval of what is expected be the largest wind energy project in the United States. It will require a big construction force to assemble and erect the 1,000 turbines the project could require, with regular maintenance and field service a permanent part of the equation.

Uranium mining is on a modest upswing as well, and Wyoming is the nation's top producer of that energy-rich commodity. We're still a big state for oil as well, and if a solar-energy breakthrough comes, our sunny, clean-air state also would be high on that list.

Finally, despite all the depressing talk about coal during the election cycle, things will change after November. Wyoming can count on its coal industry to do two things. The first is to find international markets for coal and use our know-how in both marketing and distribution to take advantage of them. The second is to bring the same innovation and creativity that brought us the unit train and unparalleled success in mine reclamation to bear on the emissions issue. We'd bet a solution can be found even if the nation doesn't follow Wyoming's example on election day.

Energy needs to be talked about at the highest levels of government, industry and research. We in Wyoming can take heart in knowing that we'll continue to be a major factor in virtually any energy picture that takes shape.

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