The Global West: how foreign investment fuels resource extraction in Western states

  • Composite photo: Wyoming drill rig and Chinese flag.

    Istock, Jim W. Parkin
  • An American flag flaps in the wind on a ranch near Douglas, Wyoming. The area is part of the Niobrara Shale Formation in which the Chinese are invested.

    Michael Shane Smith
  • A loaded China Shipping Line container ship makes its way down the main channel at the Port of Los Angeles.

    Tim Rue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • The Climax Molybdenum Mine in central Colorado, closed for more than a decade, held a job fair in February, and is gearing up to reopen, market conditions permitting.

    Robert Moran
  • U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (center), Democrat from Nevada, and Republican Jon Huntsman (far left), former Utah governor and now candidate for president, meet with Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, during a mission to China in April. Nine other U.S. senators traveled to China for talks on topics from clean energy to human rights.

    Ng Han Guan, Pool/Getty Images
  • Governors Brian Schweitzer, D-Mont., and Christine Gregoire, D-Wash., meet to discuss the controversial proposal to build a coal-export terminal near Longview, Washington.

    Elaine Thompson, Associated Press
  • Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, R, gets an explanation of photovoltaic cells from Suntech founder Zhengrong Shi at Suntech's new manufacturing plant in Goodyear, Arizona.

  • Holli and Patrick Guillory ride near their home south of Hillsdale, Wyoming, where the increase in drilling operations -- sparked by global demand and international investment -- has them worried.

    Michael Shane Smith

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One might say that the economic and political zeitgeist of the '70s was defined by petroleum. But on an even deeper level, it was about the globalization of natural resources. Beginning around World War I, the U.S. shifted from getting its resources within its borders -- mostly in the West -- to looking abroad for raw materials, particularly oil. By 1973, the U.S. relied on foreign producers for 36 percent of the oil that fueled our cars, our economy and our lifestyle. That gave OPEC leaders the power to bring us to our knees by curtailing global oil supplies in retaliation for our support of Israel.

President Richard Nixon began the effort to pull out of the global quagmire with his "Project Independence," which had the lofty goal of weaning the U.S. from foreign energy sources by 1980. Americans traded in muscle cars for fuel-efficient Gremlins, Pacers and Corollas. Then, President Carter put on a cardigan and launched a gargantuan effort to shift American energy production back to American soil, ramping up conventional and renewable energy development while also dusting off the long-discarded notion of squeezing stuff that's not quite oil out of the Interior West's shale deposits.

If the Carter era was a rejection of globalization, then what followed was a hasty return to it. Shortly after his election, President Ronald Reagan ended Carter's bloated synfuels subsidy program, killing Colorado's burgeoning oil shale industry and devastating the regional economy. Oil prices crashed and the drill rigs were cut up for scrap. After 1985, oil imports began increasing again, and the dream of energy independence again receded.

It wasn't just oil. The now-ubiquitous "Made in China" stickers found on nearly every item on shelves from Walmart to IKEA emerged in the '80s. In 1985, we imported less than $4 billion worth of goods from China, and had only a small trade deficit. Today, we spend $364 billion each year on Chinese goods. Globalization took other forms, too. In the 1970s, American-based multinational corporations had already been spreading Coca-Cola, capitalism and consumerism to the rest of the world. In the 1980s, the rest of the world returned the favor, so that by 1990, the U.S. was not only home to the most multinational corporations, but was also the largest host country for outside investments.

The flight abroad was good for corporate profits, American consumers, and the West's environment (if not for workers, whose real wages flatlined in the '80s). It also fueled Asian economies, most notably China's, where manufacturing jobs and economic reform have spurred the largest migration in the history of the world. At a blistering rate, a nation of land-based farmers is becoming a nation of urban, wage-earning, capitalistic consumers. Last year, the number of millionaires in China topped 1 million, putting it third after the U.S. and Japan.

Chinese automakers sold 18 million vehicles in 2010, more than any country in history. In 2005 alone, 70,000 new supermarkets were built in China. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of kilometers of rail lines and highways have been constructed, along with dozens of big dams and enough wind power facilities to make Wyoming's vaunted wind boom look like a child's toy pinwheel. Per capita energy use remains at about one-fifth of that of the most gluttonous consumers in the world (the U.S., of course), but the average Chinese person uses twice as much energy as he did seven years ago. Multiply that by 1.3 billion people, and you've got a dizzyingly steep upward curve -- last year, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's biggest consumer of energy.

Starting in the 1990s, China's internal natural resource production could no longer keep up with its own demand, so it started shopping in the global market. Today, China gets about 1,000 times more oil from foreign suppliers than it did in the early 1990s. Ditto for scrap metals and waste paper and pulp. The country went from supplying copper to the global market to being one of its biggest customers in the 1990s, and helped drive world copper consumption from 12 million tons in 1998, to almost 16 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"There is no historical antecedent" for the current emergence of China, India and former Soviet-bloc countries as major players in the global economy, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's economic symposium in 2006. The symposium took place in Jackson Hole, Wyo., which lies about 200 miles -- and many demographic worlds away -- from Douglas. "Columbus' voyage to the New World ultimately led to enormous economic change, but the full integration of the New and Old Worlds took centuries," Bernanke said. "In contrast, the economic opening of China is proceeding rapidly and seems to be accelerating."

The factors influencing global commodity prices are varied and complex, and direct cause-and-effect relationships are hard to come by. Weather events, geopolitical tensions, the value of the dollar, fluctuations in OPEC supplies and speculation can ripple through the market chaotically like jiggling flies caught in a huge spider web. The echo of a popular uprising in the Middle East, for example, can resonate in the oilfields of Wyoming, despite the fact that the U.S. gets more oil from Canada than from the Persian Gulf. It would be foolhardy to claim, then, that any one nation is the prime mover of commodity prices worldwide. The U.S. remains the web's biggest spider. But China accounts for 50 percent or more of the increases in global consumption of many commodities over the past two decades, according to the USGS and the 2011 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

China's rising influence became noticeable in the 2000s. Between 2003 and 2008, copper prices jumped fivefold, and Arizona's mining industry -- driven by copper -- added 5,000 jobs. Proposals to open and reopen mines sprouted West-wide. Vince Matthews pulls up a chart showing a nearly 1,000 percent increase in molybdenum prices between 2003 and 2008, echoing China's demand. Then he displays a photo of the people of Leadville, Colo., celebrating on the streets as a gargantuan new piece of machinery for the soon-to-be-reopened Climax molybdenum mine passed through town in 2008.

Asian demand also helped jumpstart a stagnant domestic oil and gas industry. In 2003, oil prices began their long steep climb, pulling natural gas prices along for the ride, and drill-rig counts echoed the upward swing. Once-small Wyoming towns sprawled outward, their hotels filled with contract workers. Colorado's natural resource sector jumped from a $2 billion industry in the late 1990s to a $12 billion industry in 2006, 50 percent larger than the tourism sector.

For a time, the "New West" amenities/growth economy that had emerged in the 1980s kept pace with the reborn Old West extraction economy, competing with it for housing and workers. (Fast-food joints near the gas patch had to fork out $300 bonuses just to get people to flip burgers.) It was a moment in history when not only real estate agents, construction workers and roughnecks could get rich, but also peddlers and thieves of scrap metal, which had become one of the region's hottest exports, most of it going to China.

Sometime in late 2006, though, the overblown housing market started to collapse: By mid-2008, the West's real estate agents were going back to waiting tables, only to find that those jobs were disappearing, too. During the early stages of the crash, Chinese demand and commodity prices remained high. This kept the West's mines and rigs running even as the rest of the economy nosedived, but ultimately, even China's economy stalled out. Commodity prices plummeted at Great Depression-esque rates. Drill rigs were idled and mining expansion plans put on hold. The New West was dead, and the new Old West had expired along with it. Or so it seemed.

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