Pump jacks in Wyoming. (BLM Wyoming/FlickrCC)

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.

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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.

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  1. You’re obviously intelligent. Get out of Rock Springs before things inevitably get worse. The majority of people there believe government cutting can go on forever, and likewise that Wyoming will be able to strong arm the rest of the world into buying energy that can’t even compete on cost to consumer, let alone cost to the environment. The general mentality for Sweetwater is simply to debt problems hence all the suicides. Get out.

  2. Love this! I look around at all my friends and neighbors and wonder why they just don’t get it. We have been kicking the diversification can down the road for many years and here we are yet again. Many Wyoming residents are so insulated from reality that they are clearly in denial of what is so evident around the world. Sadly, they like to opine with no real data to substantiate their opinions. Wake up Wyoming! Our economy is not only in a sad state, it has been put there by old white men who can’t see beyond the end of their noses. Time for some real leadership in our legislature. Forward looking, progressive people are what we need. Thank you for having the courage to write this.

  3. Thank you for writing that, Emilee Thomas. I feel it as clear, simple, to the point, and the truth. I’d be happy to read your thoughts again.

  4. Humans are not immune to extinction. Sadly, I suspect we will take ourselves out. Happily, I suspect Mother Earth and the other creatures she supports will get along just fine without us.

  5. Good read, Emilee.
    Odd that amid all the hue and cry and pyrotic outrage of the leasing pause , we hear little to nothing about the 8,000 abandoned or orphaned oil & gas wells —including 2,000 wells that were producing but shut in anyway . Or the many tens of thousands of acres leased but never acted upon…fallow empty ground acquired by the Land Man on behalf of the companies that were never drilled or developed , and maybe were never intended to be…the companies have this nasty habit of stocking up on leases on paper just to keep their competitors from getting them . Or maybe just to speculate on them , since they can be had for next to nothing costwise.

    Petronomics is voodoo on its best day , after all. The Governor and the Lej either don’t get that , or are in total denial. Maybe we need to raid the Wyoming Oil & Gas Commission to determine the situation on the ground with past and present leases before we issue any new paper…

  6. Thank you, Emilee,
    Please send your comments to the Governor and legislators. Too many of them are busily trying to shore up our fossil fuels industries .meanwhile they ignore the tax structure problems that keep other kinds of industries /jobs from meaningful contributions to public services needed by all ( roads, utilities, police, fire, etc.).

  7. A big problem is overpopulation around the world. In the US, we have crammed around 330,000,000 people into a habitat that used to support maybe 50 million before the Eurotrash invasion over the last few centuries. People need to quit their sleepwalking and realize that the planet has a finite amount of resources, that catastrophic climate change is real, and that plundering dominionists, some of whom expect a supernatural being to fly down and save them, won’t be able to call the shots for much longer.

  8. Thank you, Emilee, for this clearly understandable take on Wyoming’s situation. Yes, it is painful, and because of poor decisions in the distant and recent past, all of us here are experiencing the pain. The world is changing and we need to get our heads out of the sand and get creative. Otherwise, people will start leaving this state thinking they can make it somewhere else…..only to find they need to be creative wherever they end up.

  9. “Out of the mouths of babes”
    Excellent !!
    What more can be said
    Can only your youth see how the cow is eating the cabbage?

  10. The price you are going to pay is high energy costs, passed thru every product and service. Constricted fossil fuels are already causing higher gasoline prices. Inflation is reigniting and will drive up interest rates. I lived through this in the 1970s. It crippled the Ford and Carter administrations. The prime rate was 18%. We have more coal than the Arabs have oil. Cleaner fossil fuels are our answer. The wind don’t always blow (even in WY) and the sun don’t always shine (especially in WY). Let China and India bear the research and development pain of climate change.

    1. Do your research. Laramie, where I live, averages 230 days of sun a year and has daily average wind speed of 12.4 mph. That’s average. So yes, the sun usually shines and the wind always blows.

      1. Proof will not matter. Some people are incapable of breaking away from what they are fed in their echo chamber.

  11. Good for you Emilee. It is so refreshing to read comments that actually mean something. Keep up the good work.

  12. Nothing like stating the obvious. Wyoming has had a boom-bust economy since we moved here back in 1979. Yet, somehow, the state has prioritized trying to sustain the very industries that have always contributed to the boom/bust cycle. I too thought it was interesting how upset people got with the moratorium on NEW leases when there are so many leases out there not being used because no one is drilling! The state can only do so much to keep these jobs – the biggest factor is market forces created by capitalism where the all mighty dollar is rules. The state needs to wake up and change with the times and look at ways to create new jobs that level out the boom/bust cycle of the energy industry.

  13. Excellent article about reality vs perception. If only the deniers of the change our country is going through would admit it and put their backing into progressive change for Wyoming. Thanks for the good reporting and reflection on the situation.