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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In late 2008, as the Great Recession swamped the planet, the Chinese government launched a stimulus package that, as a portion of total GDP, may have been the largest such infusion of cash into an economy, ever. It kicked in quickly, and by the middle of 2009, China's manufacturing machine and infrastructure buildup were back on the upswing, taking commodity prices along for the ride. After reaching a record high this February, copper is now trading for about what it was during the 2008 boom. Oil prices continue to fluctuate for a variety of reasons (including fears that China's too-rapid growth will result in unmanageable inflation), but generally have followed the same trajectory as copper, hovering around and above $100 per barrel for months.

"Sharply higher prices for many raw materials are driving up the prices ... of consumer goods and services, including gas and food," said John Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, in a speech this May. The culprit, he said, is "the rapid rebound in the global economy in the past year and a half, led by robust growth in emerging market economies (namely China and India), which display a ravenous appetite for raw materials."

Just as Matthews predicted, it's all feeling a bit like the 1970s all over again, what with rising prices at the pump and an unstable Middle East. Oil shale is back, as is Dallas, the television series about frisky Texas oil barons. Everyone from President Obama on down is invoking energy independence; mothballed mining plans are being dusted off and drill rigs are rising again like American flags on the Fourth of July.

This boom, though, has some new twists that may ultimately have bigger ramifications for the West. During the last buildup, Western coal remained a domestic product, rarely if ever venturing overseas. (U.S. demand was strong enough to keep it at home.) Now, even Powder River Basin coal is becoming a global commodity, frustrating environmentalists and helping keep coal companies in the black.

Many of the West's biggest mines and gasfields have long flown foreign flags, particularly those of Australia, England and Canada. Huge corporations set up shop in other countries as if borders didn't exist: U.S. companies have $4 trillion in foreign direct investment assets abroad, while foreign companies have $2.3 trillion such assets in the U.S. Now, a new wave of foreign investment is coming in from a new crop of countries.

China tried to get into the game in 2005, when the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) bid on Unocal, an American petroleum company. But after a major congressional contingent opposed the deal, citing national security concerns, CNOOC backed off. Chinese mining and energy firms have since focused their investments elsewhere, setting up or buying up energy and mineral operations in Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia in ways that echo past colonizing efforts by European countries and the U.S. Australia, too, has responded to China's appetite, kicking up its extraction industries by several notches, sparking concerns that the nation is becoming Asia's mineral colony.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., with the country still drowning in the economic doldrums, the political tide has turned. Western politicians have practically tripped over each other in their rush to attract foreign, especially Chinese, investment. In 2008, three months after visiting China to look for trade opportunities, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal told visiting Chinese officials that Wyoming is "America's best-kept secret as to being a good place to do business." (Freudenthal has since become a director at Arch Coal, which is making a multi-pronged attempt to break into the Chinese market.) Idaho Gov. Butch Otter led his own trade delegation to China, as did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's now promising that a Chinese company is going to make a huge investment -- possibly in the form of a wind-turbine factory -- in his home state of Nevada. And in June, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer gave the keynote address at a coal industry conference in Beijing.

Into this new climate, and with a more subtle approach (investing in firms rather than buying them outright), CNOOC is back, buying portions of Chesapeake Energy's holdings in shale gas plays in the East, in Texas and one-third of the firm's 800,000-acre share of the Niobrara Formation in Colorado and Wyoming. The Niobrara became a hotspot after new drilling and fracking techniques hit the modern equivalent of an oil gusher in Weld County, Colo., in 2009. The deal with China gave Chesapeake the capital to get in on the action, and in the months following the transaction, nearly half of more than 100 horizontal well drilling permits issued in Wyoming's Converse County, home of Douglas, went to Chesapeake. This type of partnership "is understandable," says Mark Northam, director of the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming. "They (CNOOC) are using their abundant cash to help the U.S. companies carry out their drilling activities. There are few better places for Chinese investment than Wyoming because our business environment is so robust."

Similar scenarios are happening all over the West, from a gold mine in Idaho financed by an investment-for-visa scheme, to a Chinese-owned solar panel factory in Goodyear, Ariz. A Chinese bank is financing a proposed molybdenum mine in Nevada, with the loan secured by a Chinese mining company. A Korean company holds a 20 percent stake in the project, and the molybdenum from the mine is committed to Korean, Japanese, Chinese and European companies.

And this spring, Eesti Energia -- based in the former Soviet-bloc country of Estonia -- bought the Oil Shale Exploration Company, getting a federal oil shale research lease in Utah in the bargain. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert -- who made a trade mission of his own to China just this spring -- had nothing but praise for the deal: "Today's action falls in line with our policy of responsible energy development and allowing the free market to drive a more secure energy future for Utah and the nation."

A stimulus package has arrived in the West's mines and gasfields, and it's coming from abroad. "Under the current circumstances, this is a win-win," says Northam. "I think it's a necessity. Billions of dollars are coming into the U.S. to pay for U.S. rigs and employ U.S. workers."

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