Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Idaho is the fastest-growing state in the union.
Half of its neighbors are in the top five. All but one are in the top 13.
The “but one” is Wyoming. It’s dead last. 51st out of a possible 51 (our ranking is adjusted for population and includes Washington, D.C.). Wyoming lost 1.0 percent of its population in 2017 even as Idaho was gaining 2.2 percent.
So why are so many people leaving Wyoming while Idaho booms?
For clues, look at the full ranking [of states by population growth]. The Pacific Northwest and Mountain West are extremely well represented at the top of the chart but Wyoming and West Virginia are stuck to the bottom. Those two, and others in the lower echelon, have something in common: resource dependence. In their case, it’s primarily coal mining.
Wyoming has long been the nation’s coal king. The vast operations of the Powder River Basin produce more coal than all but a handful of states put together. But cheap natural gas has reduced power plants’ dependence on the mineral and, with it, its price and production. Wyoming’s mines are shipping out fewer tons of coal and getting paid less for each of them.
It’s hard not to think of Trump’s efforts to bring back coal while reading this article. Much has been said and written about why those efforts are ill-advised. There’s been a lot of talk about coal’s negative environmental impacts (all true), and about its declining value as the world (even including the United States!) turns away from fossil fuels to renewal sources of energy such as wind and solar (also true). But there’s another, more primal, economic factor at work: extracted resources, like coal, are inherently volatile. They boom and bust as new deposits are discovered, extracted, and exhausted, and as demand waxes and wanes.
Increasing our dependence on coal makes our economy less stable. Even if Trump can usher in the coal boom times that he has promised, the bust will inevitably follow.