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Wyoming's Energy-Related Economic Boom

New York Times:

GILLETTE, Wyo. — Many economic signs are looking bright for Wyoming right now, and this red-knuckled city of coal miners and oil field mechanics is leading the charge.

“Things are picking up,” said Cody Chase, 24, who had just finished an overtime shift at a coal mine north of here and was having a 7 a.m. burrito and beer at a downtown breakfast joint. Hours at the mine are up, said Mr. Chase, who makes $26 an hour after less than a year on the job, and new workers have started coming on.

It is the sort of talk that should warm the hearts of political leaders, including President Obama, as he prepares his re-election campaign. He might even expect to get a little boost from it.

But that does not appear to be in the cards in Wyoming, where he received only 32.5 percent of the vote in 2008, his weakest performance in the nation.

Republicans, who dominate Wyoming politics and culture, are loath to give Mr. Obama credit for good economic news. And environmentalists, who filed a lawsuit this month challenging the entire coal-leasing system, say they think he has failed to live up to his promises on carbon and climate change.

The bottom-line message is that the climb out from this recession, if Wyoming is any measure, could be as politically turbulent as the descent.

Economists say administration policies to reduce imported energy, along with higher commodity prices, are bolstering what Wyoming has to offer — natural gas and oil, coal so near the surface it can be harvested without underground mines and endless wind for electricity turbines.

Just last month, Mr. Obama’s interior secretary, Ken Salazar, came to Wyoming to announce the timetable for billions of dollars in new coal leases near Gillette, in the state’s northeast corner. Some coal industry boosters saw that as a strong signal of support — coming less than two weeks after the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis — for traditional energy as the backbone of the national supply.

But many other residents here say they still see Mr. Obama as the enemy of Wyoming’s mineral bounty.

“He’s perceived as the energy killer,” said Barrett K. Norris, co-owner of Thunder Basin Homes, a manufactured housing company in Gillette.

Mr. Norris said that by his company’s measure, Wyoming had a very mild eight-month economic slowdown. And in the last few months, the demand for housing — a proxy for energy markets since the local economy swings by those rhythms — is back at full throttle. Even cattle ranching, tough in the best of times, is showing strength.

“But I don’t know anybody who voted for him or likes him,” Mr. Norris said of the president.

L. J. Turner, a rancher south of Gillette, also sees the energy sector accelerating into a gallop. But he fears that prospect, especially the impact on air and water from the mines, and the loss of public grazing lands, all of which, he said, affects the 10,000-acre spread homesteaded by his father and grandparents. He voted for Mr. Obama but feels let down.

“I thought he’d be more of an environmentalist,” Mr. Turner said.

Whether Washington has a coherent energy policy in the West — and whether it could ravage Wyoming as a resource provider or send its economy to the stratosphere — is also up for debate.

The administrator of the State Economic Analysis Division, Buck McVeigh, said he thought Mr. Salazar’s visit, talking about coal so soon after the Japan quake, was a subtle but powerful message that Wyoming’s role as the nation’s biggest coal provider was not going away.

The Wyoming Mining Association, a lobby group that represents both coal and drilling interests, read things much the same way.

“He’s recognized reality,” the group’s executive director, Marion Loomis, said of Mr. Obama.

The rest here.

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Wyoming's Energy-Related Economic Boom

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