It seems like everybody in Sweetwater County works in the oilfield or some kind of mine. I grew up here, and it’s been like that my whole life. But the oilfield and mines have been losing jobs since I was in high school, and I wonder how long they will last.
I understand why people are upset about President Joe Biden’s recent order to pause oil and gas leasing on federal lands. After all, they are worried about their jobs. But it’s surprising to hear people talk about it like it’s some new, dramatic change.
Coal and oilfield jobs were leaving Sweetwater County before Biden was elected, even during President Trump’s term. Rock Springs used to be the fracking headquarters of the world. But over the past five years, hundreds of people have been laid off from Halliburton and other oilfield companies here. Thousands of other oilfield workers and coal miners have lost their jobs around the state.
This isn’t a new problem. But now people seem to be going crazy, like there’s been some huge shift. Even our state lawmakers are talking like this came out of nowhere, when really they have been watching people lose their jobs for years.
It’s like they’re looking for someone to blame.
Becoming angry right now because of a temporary pause on oil and gas leasing on public lands doesn’t make sense. Most of our oil drilling in Wyoming happens on public lands. But oil companies have already purchased thousands of leases in Wyoming that they simply aren’t using. They’re just sitting there, because the price of oil is low and they can’t make money selling it.
In fact, there are currently only five active drilling rigs in the whole state. Earlier in 2020, that number dipped to zero. With the pandemic stretching into its second year, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to see significant recovery any time soon.
So if there are already thousands of leases purchased, and hardly anyone is drilling, how is pausing new leases a bigger deal than what’s already been happening?
To me it’s obvious that pausing oil and gas leases is a small part of a bigger issue: climate change and fossil fuels. President Biden says he is going to work to stop climate change, and that means more oilfield and coal jobs are going to disappear.
But President Donald Trump definitely did not work to fight climate change, and many oilfield and coal workers in Wyoming got laid off anyway.
People in Sweetwater County sometimes talk like there are no other options aside from working in the oilfield or the mines. And for a lot of young people my age, that can seem true. That’s why lots of people I graduated high school with in Green River went to work in the oilfield, and lots of people who didn’t go into the oilfield ended up leaving the state.
If we want other options in Wyoming, we are going to have to create them ourselves. But we can’t do that if we’re obsessed with keeping things exactly the way they’ve always been. The world is changing, and we have to change, too.
At Western Wyoming Community College, where I’m a student, we talk a lot about “sustainability.” Usually, sustainability means making sure the air and water are clean, and the places and wildlife we love are healthy and preserved.
But more and more, we’re talking about sustainable jobs, too. Many of the jobs we have in Sweetwater County, and in much of Wyoming, are not sustainable. And that’s because, around the world, people who are trying to stop climate change realize that we cannot continue burning oil, gas, and coal for energy. Inevitably, these jobs are also going to disappear because oil, gas, and coal are all finite resources, but also because market forces are driving their decline.
Because it’s not just individual activists pushing for change. In late January, General Motors announced that it would only sell emission-free vehicles starting in 2035. I would expect decisions like these by major corporations are going to eliminate jobs in the oilfield to a greater degree than President Biden’s order to pause leasing.
The last few years have been hard for so many people in Wyoming, including my friends and family, who depend on good jobs in the oilfield and mines. And things are going to get harder. We need to figure out how to create new, good jobs that will be sustainable for people, and at the same time make sure that we aren’t doing irreparable harm to our planet.
That’s the kind of sustainability that everybody in Wyoming should be fighting for.