Go West, young man: Horace Greeley’s famous advice has, with one caveat, withstood the test of time. Last January, the US Census Bureau unveiled population data showing that in 2017, western states enjoyed the Union’s highest rate of in-migration. However, within this sea of high western in-migration – which includes 13.0 percent in Nevada and 14.6 percent in Idaho – lies a single exception. In stark contrast with its neighbors, Wyoming paces the nation in out-migration at an eye-popping 14.7 percent. The state remains a statistical outlier in another metric as well: economic specialization. While the western states are mostly middling in terms of economic diversification, Wyoming is far behind. Almost 7 percent of Wyomingites are employed by the mining industry, which makes up a staggering 20 percent of the state’s GDP. The connection between these two anomalies can be explained by a third. Although President Donald Trump does enjoy relatively high support in most of the Mountain states, he is revered in Wyoming unlike anywhere else in the country. Trump boasts a net approval rating of 32 percent in Wyoming, a figure that not only leads the nation but also more than doubles any of the state’s neighbors. While the state’s statistical oddities are inherently interesting, they also tell a cohesive narrative when examined all together: Politicians are gaslighting Wyomingites into doubling down on the dying fossil fuel industry.
Nowhere in the United States did Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric resonate as strongly as in Wyoming; voters preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton at a rate of nearly three to one. After the election, a Republican strategist remarked that Wyomingites “[felt] like [the] coal, oil and gas industries [were] getting left behind” after the nation lost 83,000 mining jobs during Barack Obama’s presidency. Overall, a sense of optimism pervaded the state following Trump’s surprise victory. This excitement was perhaps best articulated by mining equipment supplier Scott Baysinger, who enthusiastically called the results of the election “freaking great.” Since election day, the state’s fervent support for the president and his agenda has not waned, despite limited gains for the mining industry. Wyoming coal companies created only five new permanent jobs in 2017, contrary to Trump’s declaration that the “war on beautiful, clean coal” was over. Wyomingites have remained blissfully ignorant of damning employment statistics and expert consensus that places the mining industry on life support, instead holding on to the hope that coal will make a comeback. “Without coal, Wyoming is over,” one worker confidently stated last summer, “[but] Trump will fix everything.” To Wyomingites, a happy lie has long been preferable to an unfortunate truth. Trump is only the latest politician to capitalize on their misguided belief that the mining industry is on the cusp of a renaissance.
While some optimistic Wyoming citizens remain in the state and continue to support the president’s efforts to save a dying industry, many of them are finished waiting. Casper, one of the the state’s largest coal producers, has lost more than a thousand residents since Trump’s inauguration. According to Wenlin Liu, the state’s chief economist, population dips like this are directly linked to the decline of the mining industry: “Migration is mostly driven by changes in employment, which is particularly true for Wyoming… [people] leave the areas where employment opportunities become limited.” These pilgrims’ most popular destinations are the neighboring states of Idaho, Montana, and Utah, which further suggests that they are not just looking for a change of scenery. While the obvious solution is economic diversification, efforts to modernize Wyoming’s economy have been sabotaged by elected officials.
Since politicians insist on the popular lie that coal can make a comeback, Wyoming has vacillated between half-hearted legislation and straight-up repudiation of diversification. While the 2017 ENDOW Act, which created an advisory council to draw up a plan for long-term diversification, sounds like a step in the right direction, the board has no real power to affect change. Rather, enforcement power lies with the state legislature, which often ignores outside suggestions. For example, upon the release of the council’s 40-year plan, governor Matt Mead admitted that “I think this lives or dies with the private sector.” To make matters worse, current Governor-elect Mark Gordon is also a coal loyalist. During a recent debate, Gordon seemed unwilling to take up the challenge of battling the state’s economic homogeneity, responding that “I worry so much that we spend a lot of time trying to figure out that great big thing that is going to cost the state a lot to do.” In contrast, Sam Galeotos, the one vocal advocate of economic expansion, only received 12 percent of the vote in the August Republican primary. Overwhelmingly, Wyomingites and the politicians that they elect are unwilling to commit themselves to the innovation the state needs to compete economically with its neighbors.
Conversely, neighboring Idaho’s economic development over the past few decades serves as a good model for Wyoming. When Idaho and Wyoming entered the Union in the late 1800’s, the economies of the two states were both closely tied to mining. While mineral rich Wyoming continued to profit from mining as the twentieth century progressed, the less-auspicious Idaho exhausted its valuable natural resources by the mid 1900’s. Idaho found itself in a similar situation as present day Wyoming, except it suffered from a lack of supply rather than demand. To address this problem, Idaho made forays into agriculture, manufacturing, and technology. The state now boasts the 17th most diverse economy in the country. Andrew Van Dam of the Washington Post relates the two states to “the tired old parable of two siblings, separated at birth,” unfavorably comparing Wyoming to the “[brother who] began with natural gifts and found little incentive to grow beyond them.” If Wyomingites ever doubt the viability of economic diversification, they only need to look next door. Enough of them are already going over to check it out for themselves.
The Equality State is unequalled in its defiance to change. Its anachronistic economy is driving people out of the state at a historic rate while voters continue to support legislators who have promised the impossible: the creation of jobs that no longer exist. Nonetheless, the citizens of Gillette, a small mining town that was once referred to as “the energy capital of the nation,” still remain hopeful. “We just need another boom,” insists the wife of an oil worker, “We used to eat steaks… now it’s ramen and hot dogs.” However, Wyomingites are in denial if they believe that wishful thinking will restore the mining industry. Only a difficult but necessary divorce from their long-time marriage with the fossil fuel industry will bring back jobs and citizens.
Photo: “Wyoming Welcomes You”