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Know the West

The United States of Energy


I’m kind of a map geek. I hang them in the bathroom and study the names of small Colorado towns while brushing my teeth. Meals frequently turn into geography bees thanks to the world map tacked above the table (quick—name three countries that border Afghanistan). But how do you map something that’s basically invisible? That’s what the folks at Saxum, an Oklahoma-based marketing and PR firm, did with their map of American energy resources. The United States of Energy, as they’re calling it, combines fossil fuel deposits, nuclear plants, renewable energy generators and places with renewable potential onto one map (click here to see it bigger).

A couple things jump out right away. First, the middle of the country is basically an energy colony. According to Saxum’s calculations, nine states -- North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico -- produce 46 percent of all U.S. energy, including two-thirds of our natural gas and nearly one third of our renewable energy. Second, many of the areas with the highest population, like the entire eastern seaboard, are fairly energy poor.

Third, Americans import a lot of energy. According to Saxum, in 2011, we brought in 3.5 times more BTUs than we shipped out. But, as this graph shows, that’s beginning to change, due to the spread of fracking to tap shale oil and natural gas and improved fuel efficiency standards for cars. Indeed, last year the International Energy Agency said the U.S. would become a net oil exporter by 2030.

Fourth, the Northwestern states rule when it comes to hydropower, especially Washington, which generates nearly double the megawatts of California, the second place state. And hydropower is by far the most dominant source of renewable energy. The top solar producing state, California, generates 626 megawatts, or just three percent of Washington’s hydro output of just over 21,000 MW.

Fifth, natural gas is out-stripping all other fossil fuels when it comes to electricity generation. The top five states for gas power produce just under 200,000 MW—nearly double coal’s electric output.

Like any good PR firm, Saxum is hoping the map will raise their agency’s profile. But they’re also hoping to give people a sense of how energy rich the U.S. is, which is something people who don’t live alongside energy extraction can overlook. Of course, the map doesn’t document any of the environmental and social costs and benefits of our growing domestic energy industry. But it’s pretty cool to look at. I’d hang it on my wall.

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News. Thanks to her frequent map studies, she knows the answer to the geography question is either: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan or China.