The last great boom that lit up Wyoming’s economy happened 25 years ago. The predictable bust followed, and it was the mid-1980s when oil prices crashed, nationwide demand for energy plummeted, interest rates soared and, overall, many get-rich dreams that had been hatched during the heady days turned to nightmares.
Now, we are in the fifth year of the next big boom. The optimism is back, and it’s a time for the dreamers to dream. We know where all this new money is coming from -- severance taxes on minerals, especially natural gas. Lawmakers have met in Cheyenne in recent years with budget surpluses nearing $1 billion a pop. At the start of this year’s session, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said the outlook is still very, very rosy, though he cautioned the legislators to spend with discretion.
Still, the time for innovation is when you have money to do things. And future-thinking leaders have been doing some great things in recent years. For example:
• The University of Wyoming, thanks to a $5 million grant from BP America, has begun planning a wind-energy research center.
• Over a billion dollars has been budgeted and spent for new school facilities in our state.
• An initiative called the Hathaway Program will provide any qualified student in Wyoming with a college education, thanks to a $500 million endowment.
• Over $100 million has gone into endowed chairs at the University of Wyoming and the community colleges. A Department of Energy has been created at the university.
• More than $124 million has been sent to our communities in the business-ready community program, helping them create the infrastructure that will survive a future bust.
• The super-computer project in Cheyenne under the National Center For Atmospheric Research is already a boon for the state.
• A wildlife trust fund has been established to guarantee an income flow for projects involving our game and fish, whether they’re hunted or not.
• The state is paying for new prisons and remodeling old prisons.
• Money has been allocated to deal with substance abuse, alcohol and tobacco abuse, and new facilities are being built to treat addicts.
• Wyoming has begun long-overdue maintenance of state buildings and facilities.
All of this is impressive, but it is a time for even bigger ideas. Here are some proposals that have emerged:
Why not consider building an energy reservation that could incorporate coal-to-gas technology -- besides the one on the drawing board in Carbon County in southern Wyoming? It could incorporate nuclear power, a natural gas-fired power plant or perhaps a new refinery. Such a reservation could be located at some spot located in a square cornered by Douglas, Buffalo, Newcastle and Lusk.
A second grand idea is to get Wyoming involved in the ownership of energy projects, or at least as a partner. This would significantly lower the costs of power to our own citizens, plus give us the upper hand in creating local development surrounding such a project.
Meanwhile, we have some challenges, and perhaps this is the toughest: How can we preserve our wild environment in the face of unprecedented growth? Can we have our cake and eat it, too? Then there’s tourism, which continues to boom, though we need more and better roads. Some new four-lane highways would help, and as an airline advocate, I have long supported the idea of the state becoming more innovative when it comes to providing commercial air expansion. Gov. Dave Freudenthal says Wyoming needs some more reservoirs -- and this makes a lot of sense in a state where the climate at best is described as semi-arid. Despite recent rains, we have also had drought five of the last six years.
So, what are we leaving out and where are our big thinkers? Now is when they need to come forward with big ideas. We’ve got the dough; let’s figure out creative things to do with it.
Bill Sniffin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander.