Wyoming Rejects Climate Science

Several days ago, in an article for Salon, Lindsay Abrams reported that the state of Wyoming rejected the Next Generation Science Standards being implemented nationwide as part of the effort to increase student interest and achievement in the STEM disciplines.

As has been the case whenever and wherever these science standards have been challenged, one of the vocal opposition groups in Wyoming has been Christian fundamentalists who oppose the teaching of evolution and the exclusion of “creation science” from the curriculum.

But in Wyoming, Christian fundamentalists are a smaller segment of the population than they are in other Western states and in the states of the Deep South. So, it is an open question whether their opposition to the new standards, however vocal it might have been, would have been enough for the state legislature to reject those standards.

The primary reason that the legislature rejected the standards was purely economic, and the legislators were not at all hesitant to admit their motives. This is what The Wyoming Tribune has reported:

“’[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,’ said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the [budget add-on’s] authors. ‘There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.’

“Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the nation’s largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.

“Micheli, the state board of education chairman, agreed.

“’I don’t accept, personally, that [climate change] is a fact,’ Micheli said. ‘[The standards are] very prejudiced in my opinion against fossil-fuel development.’”

What is remarkable about all of this is that the ideological bias is so transparently tied to corporate interests. In essence, in the view of these Far-Right legislators, climate science is suspect because it warns against our overuse of the fossil fuels that have become the state’s biggest exports. So it doesn’t matter to them if the whole world heats up because we continue to burn fossil fuels, as long as the fossil fuels that we are burning have been produced in Wyoming.

It is interesting I think to weigh the economic causes and effects that have figured in these calculations.

Wyoming is the tenth largest of the 50 states, but it has the smallest population of all the states. The federal government owns 50% of the land in Wyoming, but Wyoming receives more federal dollars per capita than any other state, more than twice the national average. And because the state has no personal or corporate income tax, no property tax, and no inheritance tax, it has been rated the most business-friendly state in the nation.

The two biggest industries in the state are mineral extraction ($6.7 billion annually) and tourism ($2.3 billion annually). In this matter involving science standards and in many other ways, the legislature has clearly given preference to the mineral industry over the tourism industry. And in some ways that preference makes immediate economic sense. Wyoming now ranks first among the 50 states in coal production, second in natural gas production, and fifth in oil production. It is also produces 25% of the world’s supply of trona, a mineral used in the manufacture of such diverse products as glass, soap, and pharmaceuticals. In contrast, the state ranks 45th in total revenue generated by tourism. But clearly, because of its sparse population, it would rank considerably higher in the per capita economic impact of tourism

At the beginning of 2013, mining accounted for more than 50,000 jobs in the state, meaning that about one in six working adults was employed in that sector. It is very hard to track the total jobs generated by tourism because they are not listed as a distinct category in state or federal employment reports. Still, I am guessing that total employment in that sector is at least roughly equivalent to the employment in mining. But, it is very likely that few of the service jobs related to tourism pay as well as the jobs in mining.

Nonetheless, here are the employment overviews provided by the state of Wyoming in each of the four quarters last year, which are interesting for the patterns in employment:

First quarter:

“Wyoming realized year-over-year employment gains in March 2013 in the following sectors: Construction (1,500 jobs); Retail Trade (600 jobs); Wholesale Trade (500 jobs); Manufacturing (500 jobs); Education & Health Services (400 jobs); Transportation & Utilities (200 jobs); and Other Services (100 jobs). Year-over-year employment losses in March 2013 occurred in the following sectors: Natural Resources & Mining (-2,200 jobs); Leisure & Hospitality (-1,600 jobs); Professional & Business Services (-600 jobs) and Government (-100 jobs).”

Second quarter:

“Wyoming realized year-over-year employment gains in June 2013 in the following sectors: Construction (2,100 jobs); Leisure & Hospitality (1,800 jobs); Wholesale Trade (700 jobs); Education & Health Services (600 jobs); Retail Trade (600 jobs); Transportation & Utilities (300 jobs); Manufacturing (300 jobs); and Financial Activities (100 jobs). Year-over-year employment losses in June 2013 occurred in the following sectors: Natural Resources & Mining (-2,700 jobs); Government (-700 jobs); Professional & Business Services (-600 jobs); Other Services (-300 jobs); and Information (-100 jobs).”

Third quarter:

“Wyoming realized year-over-year employment gains in August 2013 in the following sectors: Construction (2,300 jobs); Leisure & Hospitality (1,800 jobs); Retail Trade (800 jobs); Wholesale Trade (600 jobs); Manufacturing (300 jobs); Transportation & Utilities (300 jobs); and Education & Health Services (100 jobs). Year-over-year employment losses in August 2013 occurred in the following sectors: Natural Resources & Mining (-1,700 jobs); Financial Activities (-300 jobs); Other Services (-200 jobs); Government (-200 jobs); Professional & Business Services (-100 jobs); and Information (-100 jobs).”

Fourth quarter:

“Wyoming realized year-over-year employment gains in December 2013 in the following sectors: Construction (1,800 jobs); Retail Trade (1,300 jobs); Professional & Business Services (600 jobs); Wholesale Trade (600 jobs); Leisure & Hospitality (500 jobs); Government (200 jobs); and Manufacturing (200 jobs). Year-over-year employment losses in December 2013 occurred in the following sectors: Natural Resources & Mining (-900 jobs); Financial Activities (-400 jobs); Transportation & Utilities (-200 jobs); and Other Services (-100 jobs).”

Notice that, in every quarter, there were substantial employment decreases in the mining sector and, in contrast, that, except for the first quarter, there were substantial increases in employment in leisure and hospitality.  So although Wyoming has continued to have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, those numbers are not being driving by employment in the mining sector, as they have been, for instance, in North Dakota.

Most mining in Wyoming is simply not a labor-intensive enterprise. The coal mines are among the largest open-pit mines in the world, and monstrous shovels and trucks are used to remove the deep seams of coal.

To get a sense of how this sort of mining may be at odds with the state’s efforts to promote itself to tourists, take a look at the following two photos.

The first is of those unspoiled natural vistas and looks almost like a landscape painting:

WY's Natural Vistas

The second is of an open-pit coal mine:

WY Open-Pit Coal Mine

Given the stances taken by the Wyoming legislature, it is worth stating the obvious: namely, that whenever the coal is finally gone—or whenever we have finally decided to stop burning it—a great many of those natural vistas will have been sacrificed to the industry. And that is simply the most visible damage that will have been done. The damage to rivers, streams, and groundwater supplies due to the run-off from these massive mines will be much less visible but every bit as difficult to reverse.

I find it very ironic that the same ideologues so fond of wringing their hands over the legacy of government debt that we are leaving on our children, are willing to give so little thought to the actual physical world that we are bequeathing to them.

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