isolate1Sheridan – Think of Wyoming as the giant ocean that it once was, with vast stretches of water between islands and atolls. Imagine traveling by boat. The more time and money it costs to reach each island, the more isolated it becomes – unless it has something singular to offer. The plain jane atolls affording nothing but tidal pools and coconuts eventually are ignored all together.

The high cost of fuel, circa 2008, has the same isolating factors on Wyoming as the oceans of yore.

Never mind the irony about how much fuel we produce. Wyoming communities, especially the small ones, depend on cheap oil. Wyoming relies on the outside world for practically everything. The more it costs to deliver those goods, the more they’re going to cost the populace.

In June, the package delivering service DHL Express closed their Montana and Wyoming offices. The Associated Press quoted DHL spokesman Robert Mintz as saying “With gas prices and the economy, lots of companies are changing the way they do business.”

isolate2

DHL closes Wyoming offices

Right now those changes don’t seem to matter much. Tourism continues to hum along. Yellowstone’s visitations are up. Our coffers bulge. In the first six months of 2008, Wyoming collected nearly $1 billion dollars ($955,169,662) in federal royalty money alone.

Yet high fuel prices work like Chinese water torture. At first the user or the victim says he can tolerate this, adapt to it. After a while, the pain becomes unbearable.

It often takes two or three years for major price shifts, like those of housing, for example, to take effect.

With the explosion in the 1970s of delivery services such as FedEx and UPS Wyoming could be forgiven for thinking themselves free from deprivation. Then came the internet. From pâté to pump parts we had more-or-less the same shopping options as a resident of Dallas or London. Or, to quote the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, “Whatta they got that I ain’t got?”

Answer: population density.

As I’ve mention before in my columns, Wyoming residents drive more miles and have more cars and use per more gallons of gas per capita than any other state.

This development exacerbates a long-time trend: two Wyomings. High fuel costs split us into communities that can absorb and adapt to change and those that can’t. The odds favor what the U.S. Census Bureau calls “Micropolitan Statistical Areas,” that is to say, cities of over 10,000 in population.

NYTimes, Map, The Varying Impact of Gas Prices Nationwide.

NYTimes, Map, The Varying Impact of Gas Prices Nationwide.

In May of this year, the Oil Price Information Service, a fuel analysis firm, conducted a survey to learn which areas felt hardest hit by high fuel prices. Some Wyoming counties ranked near the top. It was the usual lower-income suspects: Big Horn, Washakie, Fremont, Hot Springs, Weston, Goshen, Niobrara, Platte and Albany (added, I suspect, due to those poverty-ridden UW students).

isolate3These counties qualified as most hurting because the average resident spends over 16 percent of their income on gasoline. Compare this to Hunterdon County in New Jersey. It has 284 people per square mile has an average income of $104,000. The average resident spends two percent of their annual income on gasoline. long wyoming commutes

For rural residents, high gas prices “eat a bigger chunk of their budget,” said Fred Rozell of OPI. “It’s hard for people in rural areas to change their routine. They depend on getting in an older vehicle that’s less fuel efficient.”

By contrast, says, Rozell, it’s easier for urban populations to switch to mass transit.

But Wyoming’s few cities are not immune to being isolated by high fuel costs.

Due to energy development Wyoming has, thus far, defied the national trend in air service, which is decidedly downward. What’s curious is how small Wyoming’s increase actually is. It’s practically flat. From November 2007 to November 2008, Wyoming seat numbers are up just 1.7 percent, according to the Official Airline Guide.

Even this miniscule increase is a deceptive number. Dig deeper and you’ll see that it’s the rise in seats going to the heart of BTU central, aka, Gillette, that caused the 1.7% rise. Flights there rose 90 percent. During the same period, Wyoming largest airport, Casper, experienced an 8.2 percent decrease in seat numbers. Jackson’s were down 22 percent. Cheyenne had a 28.8 decrease. Sheridan has been hit the hardest, with a seat numbers down 42 percent.

View interactive air service map here

This matters because economic diversity happens in urban areas. Cut off air travel and the legal, financial, and tourism segments of our economy whither.

Unpredictable air service to Wyoming has been a fact of life since people paid to ride behind a propeller. The federal government offers various subsidies to carriers to cover small towns. Right now, Laramie and Worland receive federal largess. What’s worrisome is how fuel prices have made those subsidies jump. The two-year Great Lakes Airline subsidy for air service to Laramie will triple from $487,516 to $1,215,603 starting in October 2008. For Worland, the boost from Washington will climb from $972,757 to $1,735,814.

Dependence on government handouts makes us more vulnerable when the ax falls, which it eventually will.

isolate4Let’s take something a little closer to home, like fuel bills for school busses. The state reimburses Wyoming school districts for fuel costs. Last year, electricity users in Missouri and Iowa (they are the actual end-users of Wyoming coal) paid $489,292 for basic transportation fuel costs for the seven Fremont County school districts, which has 6,280 students. That’s one of the highest fuel bills in the state next to districts in Campbell and Laramie counties.

The quandary is that Laramie County School District I has 12,776 students, which means a much lower per student cost than Fremont. Campbell County has considerably fewer students: 7,589. Yet this 4,800 square-mile piece of real estate produces 38 percent of the nation’s coal. It’s the cash cow of Wyoming. We skim so much severance and federal royalty money from Campbell County it’s hard to begrudge them anything.

To this wealth transfer, add the increase in the price of fuel over the last year. They’ve jumped 65 percent. That means we’ll be paying over $800,000 in basic transportation costs in Fremont County.

This fuels (har-har) a vicious circle. School districts have higher costs, and being unable to pay them, pass them on to the state. The state flush with money obliges. Will the state oblige in perpetuity?

Ultimately, higher fuel costs portend school consolidation, a term so feared in Wyoming that subjects like gun control and Colorado State football pale in comparison. A town without a school cannot survive its isolation.

This means we’re caught in another Wyoming dynamic: how to spare communities the pain of adaptation.

Petrocracies like Venezuela and Mexico subsidize fuel costs at the pump for fear of alienating the public or causing political unrest. But keeping these countries and communities from feeling the effects of market prices only pushes them farther behind in a rapidly transforming world. Such subsidies invite further isolation. Sooner or later, they must accept the reality that it costs money to travel and, they, like everyone else will have to find ways to adapt or slowly wither away. The same goes for Wyoming.

Like most solutions in city-centric America, energy conservation models work awkwardly in Wyoming and irritate us like an ill-fitting suit. We snicker at the idea of mass transportation. Still, there’s opportunity here. High fuel costs could curb Wyomings incipient urban sprawl and rein in the ranchettes.

Local suppliers may get a chance to fight low cost out-of-state discounters. And it might be time to get our posteriors in gear on local food production, as alien as that is to Wyoming.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the island isolation factor, check out tourism in the Caribbean. American Airline will cut flights out of Puerto Rico’s capital in half by September. Gone will be flights to Santo Domingo, Antigua, St. Maarten, Aruba and Samana in the Dominican Republic.

It’s easier to grow papayas in San Juan than it is in Rock Springs, though.

Resources:

Report: Commuting Patterns: http://doe.state.wy.us/LMI/commute.htm

Charts: Retail Fuel Costs Vs. Wholesale Costs for July 2008, http://www.opisnet.com/tfi.asp#charts

WYOMING LABOR FORCE TRENDS. On the Road in Wyoming: Using Commuting Data to Examine Worker Patterns, Vol. 44 No. 5. DOE website link.

Map: The Varying Impact of Gas Prices Nationwide. NYTimes link.

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Published on August 11, 2008

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