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Wyoming's youth consider the future amid economic uncertainty

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Solutions Journalism

Claire Cobb works with a horse as she volunteers at Reach 4A Star Academy in Casper on Sept. 29. The 20-year-old has ambitions that could lead her outside the state’s boundaries. That’s in part because Claire wants to be an intensive care nurse at a magnet hospital. 

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On a late September evening flush with signs of autumn’s arrival, Claire Cobb sat on the dusty ground outside her home pulling on her leather cowboy boots.

The 20-year-old had pulled a 12-hour shift at Wyoming Medical Center the night before, where she works as a patient sitter on the neurology team. After a quick nap, she made two batches of barbecue sauce for the family’s business, Pine Ridge Barbecue and Dipping Sauces. But she was already on to her next task by 4:45 p.m. that day: volunteering at Reach 4A Star Riding Academy, an organization providing support to youth through therapeutic horseback riding.

That wasn’t an unusual pace in the fourth-generation Wyomingite’s daily life. Whether it’s guiding a horse into a stall for feeding time, or lifting up a hood to fix a car, Claire is industrious and likes working with her hands.

Her childhood was fast paced and constantly changing, as she described it, with five brothers, her parents working full-time jobs, and above all, the demands of caring for livestock and a farm near Douglas. She also juggled competitive swimming and hockey.

Claire recalls her childhood as a chapter packed full of transition and necessary adaptation; it’s a rhythm that many living in Wyoming can relate to, she said.

“I think Wyoming has always been a hit or miss kind of state, especially when it comes to coal and oil,” Claire said. “It goes up and down all the time. A lot of people come, a lot of people leave. So there’s no real sense of security for people who are in those industries, and I think for a lot of them that’s really scary. Especially when they come in as a little kid.”

Claire hopes to see Wyoming become a place where more job security exists for all workers.

“When the economy goes a little crazy, I’d like to see Wyoming have programs for the people who are most affected,” she proposed.

Right now, the message she sees the state sending is: “figure it out yourself.”

Wyoming’s next generation speaks

Wyoming’s economy is faltering. Its bedrock industry, energy, has hit especially tough times this year. The stakes are high. Nearly everything — public schools, roads, fire departments, playgrounds and courthouses — has benefited from the bounty of coal, oil, gas and other minerals. When energy markets bust, Wyoming’s economy goes with it. Right now, the state is facing a revenue shortfall that has ballooned to $1.5 billion.

Most families in the state have felt the budget crunch in some way already, even those outside the dominant energy industry.

For six months, the Star-Tribune has been interviewing students, like Claire, throughout Wyoming to learn more about the possible solutions they have to respond to their home state’s current economic predicament as they build their lives here.

A majority of participants expressed a deep sense of commitment to the state’s public lands and unparalleled wildlife. Others expressed alarm over the state’s inaction over climate change and encouraged the state’s leaders to create a more favorable business environment for renewable energy. Still, some wanted things to stay the same: keep the coal, trona and bentonite mines chugging along, and oil and gas wells producing for years to come.

But the dozens of young adults united around a love for the state they call home, and a commitment to finding the best way forward. And everyone participating in this project had at least one opinion, idea or possible solution to solve the myriad problems facing Wyoming faced.

What follows is a glimpse at some of their ideas.

Debating solutions

As schools began to cautiously reopen at the end of August and students trickled back into classrooms, I visited Casper College professor Melissa Connely’s class on natural resources and the environment. I was eager to hear what her students had to say about this unprecedented chapter in Wyoming.

The eight-person class gathered in a spacious room filled with rocks, fossils and artifacts: a geologist’s heaven. Over the course of the afternoon, we spoke about their upbringings, discussed what they valued most about Wyoming, and brainstormed possible solutions to the state’s economic conundrum.

Most students shared how their awareness of Wyoming’s place as the country’s leading exporter of coal and other fossil fuels began forming at a young age. However, many also acknowledged not knowing much about the effects the industries could have on the environment until more recently. Nonetheless, the students clearly understood the tricky dance the state faced balancing the environment and the economy.

“I definitely see how there are cleaner options to coal and they might not be quite as easy, fast or accessible,” Kyle Woodruff, 18, said during the class. “I do think renewable energy is something that we need to go toward into the future, definitely. It’s just hard to form an opinion about (renewable energy), because there is so much money in the other types of energy. They are so important to us, which is understandable.”

As a state replete with massive reserves of coal, oil and natural gas, Wyoming has relied on minerals to fuel its economy for decades. The industries have employed thousands of workers and generated millions of dollars in revenue for the state. But times have changed.

Since March, over 500 miners have lost their jobs in the state’s coal mines. Over 300 have been furloughed. Coal production has been slashed by 30%. Coal-fired power plants across the nation have continued to shutter.

The COVID-19 pandemic can be blamed for coal companies’ decision to reduce workforces and cut costs. But the decline in coal predates the virus, stretching back several years as the nation shifts how it uses power.

During class, we discussed how the inexpensive cost of natural gas, combined with advancements in renewable energy, have pushed coal out of its top ranking in the electricity sector. Utilities, shouldering the mandate of keeping electricity as inexpensive and reliable as possible, have gradually transitioned away from coal.

But I asked them, could Wyoming’s fiscal crisis and declining fossil fuel sectors give renewable energy a chance to elbow into the state’s energy scene?

Students in Connely’s class were skeptical.

“Half the problem is getting the public on board with it,” said Roger McPherson, 22, a student from Casper. “There are so many people who are entrenched in oil, gas and coal. It is kind of hard for people in general to shift to renewable energy, to see a new option and bright light, because people don’t like change very much.”

The possibility of hiking up or adding some taxes in the state emerged as another possibility for keeping the state’s coffers full.

“Contrary to what a lot of people might feel, I would willingly pay taxes to help with (cleaning up the environment), especially if I know that the money is actually going in that direction,” John Beauvais said. He recently arrived in Wyoming after living abroad in Japan while serving in the military. To Beauvais, if he knew his taxes were used to directly lower carbon emissions or clean up the environment, he would be supportive.

But his classmate Michael Hollister wasn’t so convinced. “I’m a little bit opposed to taxes,” he countered.

Solutions Journalism

Kyle Woodruff poses for a portrait at his work at Metro Coffee Shop on Oct. 8 in downtown Casper. Kyle is studying at Casper College and hopes to travel to Europe to study and work in the future.

Hollister doesn’t trust the money would be put to good use. He would rather individuals and local communities take responsibility for fixing problems as they come up.

“I understand there has to be some taxes for big projects,” he said. “But I think we could be more efficient.”

The class acknowledged a tax on carbon, if not executed equitably, could disproportionately fall on low-income people too.

“What about a guy who has a 1970s pickup and pays like $80 a week in gas and gets $7 to the gallon, then he has to pay a carbon tax on it?” Hollister exclaimed.

He wasn’t buying the idea.

Nor has Wyoming’s Legislature. One day before Connely’s class convened, the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee killed a pair of tax reform bills aimed at chipping away at the state’s estimated $1.5 billion revenue shortfall by increasing and broadening the state’s sales and use taxes.

The push for renewable energy

On Nov. 19, six high school students awoke early to make the 50-mile drive from Laramie to Cheyenne to confront their representatives. Wyoming lawmakers were attempting to advance a bill that the students feared would kill the growth of residential solar energy in the state.

More specifically, the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee had proposed legislation to repeal or amend the state’s net metering statute. To Wyoming’s budding solar industry, the bill would have likely deterred future solar customers and gutted the livelihood of small solar contractors. To several lawmakers, the current system is stacked against the average utility consumer who simply wants to save money on electricity because of “cost shifting.” Cost shifting occurs if one group of consumers, in this case small energy generators, shifts certain expenses onto utility ratepayers.

High school seniors Arundathi Nair and Sam Miller were a part of the Laramie Youth Council, a cohort of high school students working to increase youth engagement in public policy and improve their communities. The group did not want the state to impose another restriction on solar energy development that day.

“This is an issue of economic development and diversification,” Sam Miller, who was 17 years old at the time, told lawmakers during the charged public comment period. “We are the ones that will inherit Wyoming’s economy. … These bills would strip away incentives for solar energy. This is a really big deal.”

After more than four hours of impassioned public testimony, the two bills drafted to overhaul the state’s net metering system failed to advance to session. The committee voted 7-7, causing the bills to fail.

Some committee members and attendees told the Star-Tribune afterwards that the testimony from the high school students ultimately made the difference.

In the weeks that followed, both Arundathi and Sam continued to advocate for solar energy in the state, including urging the high school to install solar panels on the roof to offset its dependence on fossil fuels.

Solutions Journalism

Kyle Woodruff poses for a portrait outside his work at Metro Coffee Shop in downtown Casper Oct. 8. Kyle is studying at Casper College and playing soccer. 

Solar energy development in Wyoming is in many ways still in its infancy. The state only has 137 megawatts of solar generating capacity installed, ranking 39th nationwide in solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Investments in solar energy often face public scrutiny given the state’s loyalty to the coal, oil and gas sectors.

The two students are worried about climate change. Not just worried, they are alarmed.

The overwhelming majority of young people interviewed by the Star-Tribune this year expressed a similar unease over Wyoming’s lack of action on, or outright denial of, climate change.

“I’m at this stage that I’ve accepted the problem, but I want to look for solutions,” Arundathi said. In her eyes, the state needs to act, and it needs to act immediately.

“We’re a really divided country right now, and we want to find middle ground, which I obviously think is really important,” she prefaced. “But I think I came to the realization that there are some issues, like climate change, that you can’t compromise on. Or the time to compromise on them has long past. Right now, it is a do-or-die kind of thing.”

She acknowledged shifting toward a low-carbon economy for the state would be hard. She knows coal is reliable and that it has heartily funded the state’s public education system.

“I think coal is kind of part of our identity,” she admitted. But the time has come to look for alternatives, she said.

And she’s not convinced the solution is to retrofit coal-fired power plants with carbon capture as most lawmakers here push for.

A vast majority of scientists agree that carbon dioxide is a leading contributor to human-caused climate change. Carbon capture would be a way to trap and reuse that carbon dioxide during industrial processes before it leaks into the atmosphere.

“We don’t have time for that,” Arundathi said. “Carbon capture requires putting more money into a really expensive technology to burn clean coal and build those plants that burn clean coal. It’s not realistic at all.”

The first step toward addressing the problem would be creating more policies that incentivize renewable energy development, she concluded.

But Chase Galley, 21, from Rock Springs would be worried about the expansion of solar energy in Wyoming. Galley has watched how the state’s only utility-scale solar farm has affected wildlife in Sweetwater County.

“I am kind of myself against the big solar fields,” he said. “There is one just outside of Green River here. And being a wildlife guy, I’ve seen how it has really impacted the antelop and animals that winter there.

“And right now, they are having to winter right next to Interstate 80,” he continued. “I see a lot of dead antelope. I have seen how it’s really changed that environment in that section right there, and how the animals are completely gone, or it’s just really different.”

Despite his concerns with solar energy development, he’s not opposed to wind energy.

“I think especially in Wyoming, wind is a pretty good option,” he said. “I think that they could probably put some more up.”

In terms of work, Chase has tried a bit of everything. He’s worked down in trona mines, out in the oil fields and in a hydraulic shop.

His grandfather worked at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant. His father worked on the railroads, and then the trona mines. But he doesn’t necessarily see a future for himself in energy or mineral industries.

He wouldn’t mind the state’s leading industries sticking around a bit longer, just as long as he can keep hunting and enjoying the outdoors in Wyoming.

“I think that we need to have some of these industries continue until we know there is another viable option to go to,” he said. “Because right now, I don’t see really anything else coming to Wyoming that is going to be able to (replace it). So, before we say we don’t have to worry about coal, oil or gas, I think we need to hold onto them until there is another viable option.”

On the horizon

Claire, the aspiring nurse who grew up in both Douglas and Casper, doesn’t know how much longer she’ll stay in Wyoming, her home of over two decades.

“I would really like to stay in Wyoming, but realistically speaking, it’s probably not going to happen,” she said.

Claire is studying to be a nurse, following in the footsteps of her mother. She’s enrolled at both the University of Wyoming and Casper College to stitch together the necessary degree to take care of patients. Claire decided to become a nurse in part because of the “consistency and security” it would likely afford her.

She has qualities that one would hope for in a nurse: calm, steady, pragmatic and capable.

Solutions Journalism

Claire Cobb poses for a portrait inside a greenhouse at her family home on Sept. 28 in Casper. Claire has settled  next door to her grandparents, in a house the color of polished copper. The family used to operate a catering business, culling vegetables sourced from their own garden. 

But she also has ambitions that could lead her outside the state’s boundaries. That’s in part because Claire wants to be an intensive care nurse, likely at a magnet hospital.

“I want to do all the crazy, crazy things in nursing or the really hard and complicated stuff,” she explained. “And you usually find those at magnet hospitals. In Wyoming, it’s just way too small.”

Claire has settled next door to her grandparents. Nestled in the heart of Casper, the house is the color of polished copper. The family used to operate a catering business, culling vegetables sourced from their own garden. And although the business has slowed down, a massive garden and greenhouse remain. The garden spans almost a full block, bleeding from one backyard into the next, and bursting with vegetables, herbs, succulents, flowers and more.

On the still, cloudless evening in September, Claire stood with ease outside her front door gazing out at the yard flush with growth.

At that moment, she looked at home. For the time being, Claire plans to stay here. She still has work to do.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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