For more than a century, the Interior West has been the nation’s domestic energy supplier. Factories and power plants across the country have long made use of the abundant, high-quality coal reserves in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah. After World War II, the fledgling nuclear power industry created a rush for the region’s uranium deposits.
The uranium boom busted when the nation’s appetite for nuclear power diminished in the early 1980s, leaving a legacy of sick workers and dangerous radioactive waste. But the West’s coal industry has stayed strong, despite resistance to new coal-fired power plants in the region. Midwestern and Eastern utilities, faced with the need to meet federal air quality standards, remain eager customers for the region’s clean-burning coal.
In recent decades, however, another fossil fuel has taken the spotlight. Relatively clean-burning natural gas is found in abundance in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. As prices rose in the late 1980s, and as older gas fields in places like Texas played out, drilling companies sprang into action in the Interior West, first on private lands and then on public lands. The boom continues unabated to this day, pushed by a Bush administration that has made energy development the number one priority for public lands.
In many ways, gas development is more environmentally and economically disruptive than coal or uranium mining. Gas well pads and the spider-web network of roads that serve them cover large swaths of the landscape. Miles and miles of pipeline infrastructure are needed to move the gas to market; often the easiest routes slice through wild country.
A sizable human workforce serves the gas developers. In remote parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, companies have set up man camps to house the workers; in cities and towns, workers and their families have flooded the housing market, setting off mini booms in places like Grand Junction, Colo. Even as money has poured into the economy, the local communities have suffered from the stress.
Most experts predict that the boom will last another couple of decades, as the industry siphons off the easiest-to-reach supplies. But what happens after that? Is there another energy resource in the pipeline? Energy companies have long sought economic ways to unlock the massive oil reserves embedded in shale deposits,but their efforts have yet to bear fruit. There is also a lot of buzz about a resurgence in uranium mining, as the nuclear power industry tries to capitalize on concern about greenhouse gases.
In the meantime, the West’s most abundant energy resources lie above the ground, still largely untapped. State and local initiatives are finally eyeing the wind and the sun, hastening the development of what may eventually be a powerhouse renewable energy industry.
Here are some of the links to High Country News’ best energy stories in recent years.