Energy-hungry China is becoming a big player in the Mountain West

The West's oil, gas, and coal now are shipped more than ever through West Coast ports. China, and other growing countries, are becoming bigger and bigger owners of the energy and raw materials they want.

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A coal-powered generating plant in China.

The West's oil, gas, and coal now are shipped more than ever through West Coast ports. China, and other growing countries, are becoming bigger and bigger owners of the energy and raw materials they want.

Douglas, Wyo., population 5,000 and home of the legendary jackalope, lies in an almost puritanical landscape — beautiful, yet shy about that beauty, concealing it modestly under a beige blanket of grass and shrubs. A collection of low-slung stone and brick buildings sits at the town's center, with tree-shaded residential neighborhoods radiating out from it. Ford, GM and Chevrolet pickups dominate local traffic, along with the occasional bus carrying workers from the North Antelope Rochelle coal mine nearby. After their shifts, miners and roughnecks can grab a burger and fries at The Koop, a steak at Clementine's Cattle Company, or a mean enchilada and a beer over at La Costa Restaurant.

Over beers, they might talk about politics, though without a lot of disagreement: Eight out of 10 voters in Converse County go Republican. Perhaps they'll speculate as to whether the town's other unlikely mammalian hybrid, the Bearcats — last year's 3A High School State football champs — will repeat their triumph.

In the summer, emerald-green fields spread out from the North Platte River, which quietly slides past town. Come here in June, and you're likely to breathe in the smell of fresh-cut hay. Any time of year, you can hear Old Glory snapping loudly in the wind over each fourth or fifth doublewide on the fringe of town.

There are plenty of words to describe a place like Douglas: Rural, Western, small-town, typically American. It's the type of place that country-and-Western singers rhapsodize about and city-folk tend to mock. Sarah Palin would likely recognize it as one of  "these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America. ..." Out here, "Drill, baby, drill!" is more than just a slogan, it's a way of life, for better or worse. Locals and politicians will proudly tell you that Wyoming is the backbone of an energy-independent nation.

But look more closely. On a spring morning, when both snow and dust whip through the air, a drill rig can be seen just outside of town. The sign nearby says "Chesapeake Energy," but the rig operates with funding from a Chinese energy company, and it's searching for oil and gas partly owned by the same Chinese company. In another part of Wyoming, a Japanese firm has invested in the same play, called the Niobrara. The massive coal mines to the north ship coal to 25 different states, Europe and Asia. A Russian company controls nearby uranium mines, and on the other side of the state, a company from India owns one of Wyoming's biggest soda ash facilities.

In other words, Douglas and Wyoming are not pure, unadulterated American after all, at least economically speaking. And if Douglas isn't, what community is? Not my hometown of Durango, Colo., on the edge of the San Juan Basin, where British Petroleum has about 3,000 natural gas wells. Not the mining towns of Arizona and Nevada, where Canadian, Australian and Mexican companies own gaping copper and gold mines. Not even the amber fields of Montana, which send wheat to Asia, or the Navajo Nation, which sells hay to Japan. It's the same all over the West: The natural resources that built America are no longer all-American. No matter how many red-white-and-blue flags fly over your trailer park, you too are tangled up in a global economic web that has compressed time and space and confused our ideas of place.

My quest to comprehend the most recent surge of globalization led me to Laramie, then to Douglas, then across the Powder River Basin and finally to Denver, to talk to Vince Matthews. Since 2004, Matthews has been the Colorado state geologist and director of the Colorado Geological Survey. Before that, he worked for three decades in the oil industry. For much of his career, he's observed the globalization of the West's natural resource industries. Lately, Matthews has been traveling around the state telling chambers of commerce, groups of geologists, community leaders and just about anyone else who will listen that he's worried.

Sitting in his downtown Denver office, wearing a suit and tie that would look at home on a Houston oil executive, Matthews says that China and India, with their huge populations and economies growing at rates not seen since the Industrial Revolution, are ravenous for natural resources. Handing me graphs and charts to prove it, he says that their hunger is already washing across the West, driving up the pressure to develop natural resources. He talks about a Chinese businesswoman he knows in Denver, who frequently asks him how her relatives and clients can get hold of a Colorado mine or mineral deposit. And he reminisces about a visit to the Los Angeles port at Long Beach, where he saw ship after ship loaded down with scrap metal, headed for China.

Most exports from Western states go to Canada or Mexico, but over the last decade, has emerged as one of our biggest customers; U.S. exports to China have increased 460 percent since 2000. Compared to British, Canadian or Australian multinational corporations, Asian companies still have a minuscule investment in Western resources. But over the last year, as much of Asia scrambles out of the global recession unscathed and the U.S. continues to wallow, Chinese, Indian and even former Soviet-bloc companies have bought into American oil and gas fields, molybdenum mines and more.

Even when these countries aren't directly investing in or buying U.S. resources, their appetite for them around the globe is raising prices and spurring new development here in the West, Matthews says. Combine this with a lingering economic downturn here and an attendant desperation for jobs; instability in the Middle East; new drilling and fracking technology that opens up previously inaccessible reservoirs of shale gas and oil; and an infusion of investment capital from other countries into the extractive sectors, and you get a tsunami of globalization that is reshaping the physical and political landscape of the American West.

"In the '70s, Jimmy Carter wanted to make the West into a national sacrifice zone for energy, because the West is where all the reserves are," says Matthews. "It's going to happen again."

One might say that the economic and political zeitgeist of the '70s was defined by petroleum. But on an even deeper level, it was about the globalization of natural resources. Beginning around World War I, the U.S. shifted from getting its resources within its borders — mostly in the West — to looking abroad for raw materials, particularly oil. By 1973, the U.S. relied on foreign producers for 36 percent of the oil that fueled our cars, our economy, and our lifestyle. That gave OPEC leaders the power to bring us to our knees by curtailing global oil supplies in retaliation for our support of Israel.

President Richard Nixon began the effort to pull out of the global quagmire with his "Project Independence," which had the lofty goal of weaning the U.S. from foreign energy sources by 1980. Americans traded in muscle cars for fuel-efficient Gremlins, Pacers, and Corollas. Then, President Carter put on a cardigan and launched a gargantuan effort to shift American energy production back to American soil, ramping up conventional and renewable energy development while also dusting off the long-discarded notion of squeezing stuff that's not quite oil out of the Interior West's shale deposits.

If the Carter era was a rejection of globalization, then what followed was a hasty return to it. Shortly after his election, President Ronald Reagan ended Carter's bloated synfuels subsidy program, killing Colorado's burgeoning oil shale industry and devastating the regional economy. Oil prices crashed and the drill rigs were cut up for scrap. After 1985, oil imports began increasing again, and the dream of energy independence again receded.

It wasn't just oil. The now-ubiquitous "Made in China" stickers found on nearly every item on shelves from Walmart to IKEA emerged in the '80s. In 1985, we imported less than $4 billion worth of goods from China, and had only a small trade deficit. Today, we spend $364 billion each year on Chinese goods. Globalization took other forms, too. In the 1970s, American-based multinational corporations had already been spreading Coca-Cola, capitalism, and consumerism to the rest of the world. In the 1980s, the rest of the world returned the favor, so that by 1990, the U.S. was not only home to the most multinational corporations, but was also the largest host country for outside investments.

The flight abroad was good for corporate profits, American consumers, and the West's environment (if not for workers, whose real wages flatlined in the '80s). It also fueled Asian economies, most notably China's, where manufacturing jobs and economic reform have spurred the largest migration in the history of the world. At a blistering rate, a nation of land-based farmers is becoming a nation of urban, wage-earning, capitalistic consumers. Last year, the number of millionaires in China topped 1 million, putting it third after the U.S. and Japan.

Chinese automakers sold 18 million vehicles in 2010, more than any country in history. In 2005 alone, 70,000 new supermarkets were built in China. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of kilometers of rail lines and highways have been constructed, along with dozens of big dams and enough wind power facilities to make Wyoming's vaunted wind boom look like a child's toy pinwheel. Per capita energy use remains at about one-fifth of that of the most gluttonous consumers in the world (the U.S., of course), but the average Chinese person uses twice as much energy as he did seven years ago. Multiply that by 1.3 billion people, and you've got a dizzyingly steep upward curve; last year, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's biggest consumer of energy.

Starting in the 1990s, China's internal natural resource production could no longer keep up with its own demand, so it started shopping in the global market. Today, China gets about 1,000 times more oil from foreign suppliers than it did in the early 1990s. Ditto for scrap metals and waste paper and pulp. The country went from supplying copper to the global market to being one of its biggest customers in the 1990s, and helped drive world copper consumption from 12 million tons in 1998, to almost 16 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"There is no historical antecedent" for the current emergence of China, India, and former Soviet-bloc countries as major players in the global economy, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's economic symposium in 2006. The symposium took place in Jackson Hole, Wyo., which lies about 200 miles — and many demographic worlds away — from Douglas. "Columbus' voyage to the New World ultimately led to enormous economic change, but the full integration of the New and Old Worlds took centuries," Bernanke said. "In contrast, the economic opening of China is proceeding rapidly and seems to be accelerating."

The factors influencing global commodity prices are varied and complex, and direct cause-and-effect relationships are hard to come by. Weather events, geopolitical tensions, the value of the dollar, fluctuations in OPEC supplies, and speculation can ripple through the market chaotically like jiggling flies caught in a huge spider web. The echo of a popular uprising in the Middle East, for example, can resonate in the oilfields of Wyoming, despite the fact that the U.S. gets more oil from Canada than from the Persian Gulf. It would be foolhardy to claim, then, that any one nation is the prime mover of commodity prices worldwide. The U.S. remains the web's biggest spider. But China accounts for 50 percent or more of the increases in global consumption of many commodities over the past two decades, according to the USGS and the 2011 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

China's rising influence became noticeable in the 2000s. Between 2003 and 2008, copper prices jumped fivefold, and Arizona's mining industry — driven by copper — added 5,000 jobs. Proposals to open and reopen mines sprouted West-wide. Vince Matthews pulls up a chart showing a nearly 1,000 percent increase in molybdenum prices between 2003 and 2008, echoing China's demand. Then he displays a photo of the people of Leadville, Colo., celebrating on the streets as a gargantuan new piece of machinery for the soon-to-be-reopened Climax molybdenum mine passed through town in 2008.

Asian demand also helped jumpstart a stagnant domestic oil and gas industry. In 2003, oil prices began their long steep climb, pulling natural gas prices along for the ride, and drill-rig counts echoed the upward swing. Once-small Wyoming towns sprawled outward, their hotels filled with contract workers. Colorado's natural resource sector jumped from a $2 billion industry in the late 1990s to a $12 billion industry in 2006, 50 percent larger than the tourism sector.

For a time, the "New West" amenities/growth economy that had emerged in the 1980s kept pace with the reborn Old West extraction economy, competing with it for housing and workers. (Fast-food joints near the gas patch had to fork out $300 bonuses just to get people to flip burgers.) It was a moment in history when not only real estate agents, construction workers, and roughnecks could get rich, but also peddlers and thieves of scrap metal, which had become one of the region's hottest exports, most of it going to China.

Sometime in late 2006, though, the overblown housing market started to collapse: By mid-2008, the West's real estate agents were going back to waiting tables, only to find that those jobs were disappearing, too. During the early stages of the crash, Chinese demand and commodity prices remained high. This kept the West's mines and rigs running even as the rest of the economy nosedived, but ultimately, even China's economy stalled out. Commodity prices plummeted at Great Depression-esque rates. Drill rigs were idled and mining expansion plans put on hold. The New West was dead, and the new Old West had expired along with it. Or so it seemed.

In late 2008, as the Great Recession swamped the planet, the Chinese government launched a stimulus package that, as a portion of total GDP, may have been the largest such infusion of cash into an economy, ever. It kicked in quickly, and by the middle of 2009, China's manufacturing machine and infrastructure buildup were back on the upswing, taking commodity prices along for the ride. After reaching a record high this February, copper is now trading for about what it was during the 2008 boom. Oil prices continue to fluctuate for a variety of reasons (including fears that China's too-rapid growth will result in unmanageable inflation), but generally have followed the same trajectory as copper, hovering around and above $100 per barrel for months.

"Sharply higher prices for many raw materials are driving up the prices ... of consumer goods and services, including gas and food," said John Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, in a speech this May. The culprit, he said, is "the rapid rebound in the global economy in the past year and a half, led by robust growth in emerging market economies (namely China and India), which display a ravenous appetite for raw materials."

Just as Matthews predicted, it's all feeling a bit like the 1970s all over again, what with rising prices at the pump and an unstable Middle East. Oil shale is back, as is Dallas, the television series about frisky Texas oil barons. Everyone from President Obama on down is invoking energy independence; mothballed mining plans are being dusted off and drill rigs are rising again like American flags on the Fourth of July.

This boom, though, has some new twists that may ultimately have bigger ramifications for the West. During the last buildup, Western coal remained a domestic product, rarely if ever venturing overseas. (U.S. demand was strong enough to keep it at home.) Now, even Powder River Basin coal is becoming a global commodity, frustrating environmentalists and helping keep coal companies in the black.

Many of the West's biggest mines and gasfields have long flown foreign flags, particularly those of Australia, England, and Canada. Huge corporations set up shop in other countries as if borders didn't exist: U.S. companies have $4 trillion in foreign direct investment assets abroad, while foreign companies have $2.3 trillion such assets in the U.S. Now, a new wave of foreign investment is coming in from a new crop of countries.

China tried to get into the game in 2005, when the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) bid on Unocal, an American petroleum company. But after a major congressional contingent opposed the deal, citing national security concerns, CNOOC backed off. Chinese mining and energy firms have since focused their investments elsewhere, setting up or buying up energy and mineral operations in Africa, Latin America, and the rest of Asia in ways that echo past colonizing efforts by European countries and the U.S. Australia, too, has responded to China's appetite, kicking up its extraction industries by several notches, sparking concerns that the nation is becoming Asia's mineral colony.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., with the country still drowning in the economic doldrums, the political tide has turned. Western politicians have practically tripped over each other in their rush to attract foreign, especially Chinese, investment. In 2008, three months after visiting China to look for trade opportunities, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal told visiting Chinese officials that Wyoming is "America's best-kept secret as to being a good place to do business." (Freudenthal has since become a director at Arch Coal, which is making a multi-pronged attempt to break into the Chinese market.) Idaho Gov. Butch Otter led his own trade delegation to China, as did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's now promising that a Chinese company is going to make a huge investment — possibly in the form of a wind-turbine factory — in his home state of Nevada. And in June, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer gave the keynote address at a coal industry conference in Beijing.

Into this new climate, and with a more subtle approach (investing in firms rather than buying them outright), CNOOC is back, buying portions of Chesapeake Energy's holdings in shale gas plays in the East, in Texas, and one-third of the firm's 800,000-acre share of the Niobrara Formation in Colorado and Wyoming. The Niobrara became a hotspot after new drilling and fracking techniques hit the modern equivalent of an oil gusher in Weld County, Colo., in 2009. The deal with China gave Chesapeake the capital to get in on the action, and in the months following the transaction, nearly half of more than 100 horizontal well-drilling permits issued in Wyoming's Converse County, home of Douglas, went to Chesapeake. This type of partnership "is understandable," says Mark Northam, director of the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming. "They (CNOOC) are using their abundant cash to help the U.S. companies carry out their drilling activities. There are few better places for Chinese investment than Wyoming because our business environment is so robust."

Similar scenarios are happening all over the West, from a gold mine in Idaho financed by an investment-for-visa scheme, to a Chinese-owned solar panel factory in Goodyear, Ariz. A Chinese bank is financing a proposed molybdenum mine in Nevada, with the loan secured by a Chinese mining company. A Korean company holds a 20 percent stake in the project, and the molybdenum from the mine is committed to Korean, Japanese, Chinese and European companies.

And this spring, Eesti Energia — based in the former Soviet-bloc country of Estonia — bought the Oil Shale Exploration Company, getting a federal oil shale research lease in Utah in the bargain. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who made a trade mission of his own to China just this spring, had nothing but praise for the deal: "Today's action falls in line with our policy of responsible energy development and allowing the free market to drive a more secure energy future for Utah and the nation."

A stimulus package has arrived in the West's mines and gasfields, and it's coming from abroad. "Under the current circumstances, this is a win-win," says Northam. "I think it's a necessity. Billions of dollars are coming into the U.S. to pay for U.S. rigs and employ U.S. workers."

How truly entangled are we in this global web? In March, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, introduced legislation to keep the royalty rate on soda ash mining at 2 percent rather than the 6 percent rate set back in 1995. Her reasoning: To allow American companies to compete with Chinese soda ash producers. "Although our proud tradition of soda ash production continues to be a force of economic strength for Wyoming and our country," said Lummis, "overseas competition and rising energy costs have undercut Wyoming's status as the largest producer."

Wyoming's Sweetwater County provides about 90 percent of the nation's soda ash, which is used in glass and other industrial applications. Four manufacturers operate there. One of them is Solvay Chemicals, owned by a Belgium company. Another is Tata Chemicals, whose parent company is based in India. Tata says it exports half of its Wyoming soda ash back home, helping make soda ash the state's number-one export product.

The logic of a Wyoming congresswoman shorting U.S. taxpayers to protect an Indian company operating in her state from Chinese competition so that it can cheaply export its product back to India may border on the bizarre. But these days, it's business as usual. As often as not, political efforts to block mining law reform or bills such as the American Energy and Western Jobs Act, forwarded by conservative Western lawmakers this year to fast-track oil and gas development, benefit foreign-owned companies operating in the U.S.

Few people even noticed Lummis and her Tata connection. But the Chinese invasion, as it were, has been popping up on many a right-winger's radar. "China's corporations ... serve as forward troops in Beijing's global strategic economic warfare," writes William F. Jasper, in the May issue of New American, the John Birch Society's publication. "And the line between economic warfare and the more traditional concept of military warfare can be very thin." The article echoes many of the comments on stories and blogs about these issues.

Liberals have their own spin on the foreign invasion story. In response to a new wave of uranium mining, dominated in the U.S. by Canadian companies, environmentalists are pushing once again to reform the 1872 Mining Law, which allows minerals to be extracted royalty-free. They are playing up the fact that so many of these mining companies are foreign-owned. Some greens also joined conservative lawmakers in opposition to the Russian company ARMZ's purchase of a controlling stake in Uranium One, a Canadian company with some 10,000 acres of uranium claims in the West, including two mines north of Douglas. They worry that the Russians could route American uranium to Iran.

For the most part, though, politicians and economists, and even many environmentalists, told me that the fact that this new wave of globalization is coming from China or even Russia rather than say, Japan or Britain, is neither here nor there: A hole in the ground is a hole in the ground, no matter who's getting the stuff from it; a skilled job in the oil field is good for the economy, no matter who's forking out the payroll; and an oil spill is an environmental disaster, whether it's BP or Exxon doing the spilling. Princeton economist (and now a New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman, in a 1995 book on foreign direct investment, suggested the same, saying that multinational firms — regardless of where they're based — sprawl across national boundaries, and therefore tend to lack national identity, and aren't rooted in any place.

Besides, say many economists, it's good to have China in particular as a big investor and customer, because it takes a bite — however small — out of the gargantuan trade deficit the U.S. has with them. Even Matthews, for all his alarming statistics, seems resigned to it: "If they keep making stuff for us and keep lending us money so we can buy it, I guess it will be OK."

Yet, even if we put aside our xenophobia and leftover Cold War nightmares about the Red Army infiltrating Idaho potato patches, the West still has reason to be concerned about the Asian "invasion." The Asian stimulus package may have lifted up the mining and gas drilling sectors, but it's left the rest of the economy in the dust. And that could throw our regional economy back to its old lopsided ways.

In its fourth-quarter report for last year, Wyoming's economic analysis division noted: "After a short, but severe recession, Wyoming's economy has turned around ... thanks to the robust rebound of the energy industries." Attributing the boost to Chinese demand, the report noted that unemployment dropped to 6 percent, compared to 9.6 percent nationwide, and the mining industry in Wyoming added 2,130 jobs. But the picture isn't as rosy as it seems. "You look at wages and employment in Wyoming: Wages are higher, income per capita is higher than average U.S., and employment is higher," says Ed Barbier, a University of Wyoming economist and author of the book Scarcity and Frontiers, a history of the world through a natural resource economics lens. "But it's distorted," because just about every non-extractive sector of the economy — even in the oil and gas boomtowns — remains sluggish, at best. As a result, a deep schism has opened between the state's fossil-fuel-centric economies, and everything else. Teton County, for example, home of Jackson and archetype of the high-end amenity economy of the New West, has a 12.8 percent unemployment rate. That's three to four points higher than the national rate, and three to four times higher than the gas and coal counties of Sublette, Converse and Campbell.

This divergence appears across the region. In Arizona, mines are ramping up again, and Freeport-McMoRan, the Phoenix-based company that owns copper mines in Arizona and molybdenum mines in Colorado, posted a $1.5 billion profit during its first quarter of 2011. Meanwhile, the construction industry has lost more than 100,000 jobs in the last five years in Phoenix, where hundreds of thousands of homes sit vacant. Nevada's mines more than doubled their shipments to China over the course of just one year, while housing values have dropped by 60 percent in the last five. North American timber and lumber exports to China increased fivefold between 2008 and 2010, yet the unemployment rate in the Pacific Northwest remains higher than 9 percent. The scrap-metal barons are back, scraping the Navajo Nation of its junked cars and sending them to China. But those fast-food signing bonuses of yore? They're history: Nearly 1 million people showed up in April for 62,000 jobs offered at McDonalds' first-ever national hiring day — no signing bonus offered.

Out on the western edge of the Powder River Basin, about 60 miles as the magpie flies from Douglas, the little town of Midwest sits mostly forgotten by the rest of the world. Its small houses are crammed together along bumpy streets. Some of the yards have been cared for, but others are cluttered with the detritus common in the rural West: an old stove here, a car up on blocks there, a torn-up sofa perched on a weathered plywood porch. On a windy day in April, when the sky is gray and the light flat, the town seems empty, despite all the cars parked haphazardly before the homes. The distinct aroma of burnt oil lingers in the air.

Midwest exists for only one reason: the Salt Creek Oilfield. A Dutch company drilled its first gusher in 1907. Then the place went crazy. The Midwest Refining Company took over the field and ran the company town. Midwest got its own hospital, held one of the first night-lit football games in the U.S. — Casper beat Midwest, 20-0 — and had a tennis court, a clubhouse, a theater, and a hotel. Back then, money gushed out of the field like water, and the company gave a little bit of it back.

Then, beginning in the 1930s, it shriveled up. Standard Oil, based in Indiana, bought the field and took over its operation. The hospital closed, the theater was torn down, the company offices were moved to Casper. Today, the Salt Creek Field's owner is based in Houston, where decisions are swayed by the need to please shareholders, i.e. short-term profit, and driven by oil prices determined by forces emanating from far away.

The wealth never really stopped flowing out of the Salt Creek field. With the help of CO2 injections and high oil prices, its wells still produce hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of oil each day. Anadarko, the field's operator, reported $363 million in post-tax profits for the first quarter of this year, and the guys working in the field probably make pretty good money. But it hasn't added up to what one might consider a prosperous community.

There was a time when the mine and oilfield managers and bosses, if not the owners themselves, lived alongside the workers in the local community. The bosses witnessed the needs of their communities firsthand, and they had the power to influence the company to do something about it. If they didn't, the workers and the unions had the clout and access to make certain demands, and have them met.

In today's world, we're not even sure who the bosses are or where they live. How can we expect a firm that's based in another state, or another country, to build a new library or school, or to pay for economic diversification efforts and new roads? How can we demand that it set up a safety net to catch the roughneck who gets his arm ripped off on the rig, or the single mom who's fallen on hard times, or the entire community when the oilfield finally does dry up?

Not that we even try that hard. We've long surrendered these sorts of demands in return for a few high-paying jobs, for the distant prospect of a Hummer in the gravel yard of the factory-built home and a Walmart close by. We have blindly handed over our own sovereignty to the corporate giants in the name of energy independence. We have watched our bounty slide along the rails and the interstates to the East without complaint, comforting ourselves with the illusion that it would make our nation stronger and our nation would return the favor by lifting us up with it. Today, the centers of control are drifting even farther away, and, in our desperation for jobs, we hardly even notice.

A couple days after driving around the Powder River Basin, looking unsuccessfully for Russian uranium smugglers, I sit in the Denver office of Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group that is fighting plans to expand mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Nichols sees the latest invasion as nothing more than another iteration of the story our region seems doomed to repeat: "This is the constant struggle of the West," he says. "We try to have this independent face, but our future is always tied up with someone far, far away. We're always sending our value somewhere else."

This story originally appeared in the July 25, 2011 issue of High Country News (


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