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State geologist: ‘Bust’ not likely anytime soon

Written by Jennifer Womack

By Jennifer Womack WLR Managing Editor

Casper – “Boom and bust” has become so intertwined with Wyoming’s history many assume its future occurrence without question. Wyoming State Geologist Ron Surdam calls the mindset “detrimental” and predicts the Cowboy State won’t see a repeat of the “bust” part of the cycle anytime soon.
    “The nation is as dependent on Wyoming for energy as they are the OPEC nations,” said Surdam at the Feb. 11 portion of the Governor’s “Building the Wyoming We Want” conference in Casper. “I don’t see, short of a global depression, how Wyoming could go into a bust when the nation is so dependent on the state.”
    “We now export 10 quadrillion BTUs of energy,” said Surdam. “How could you have a bust when you’re supplying 10 percent of the energy to the U.S.?”
    “As a geologist I start by looking at the state’s mineral resources,” said Surdam. Noting a decline in the state’s oil production from 1970 to 2000, he says that trend has been reversed by Anadarko’s use of new technology in oil recovery. With a leveling off of the decline he said, “I suspect we’ll see some modest increases.”
    With steady increase from 1970 to 1990, Surdam said Wyoming is now producing about 450 million tons of coal per year. By 2010 that number is predicted to reach 500 million tons using existing infrastructure coupled with larger equipment, bigger train cars and longer trains.
    “Where we’ve shown spectacular growth in terms of production is natural gas,” said Surdam. “Natural gas production was relatively modest and flat until 1995 with the onset of the Pinedale Anticline.” Today, Surdam said Wyoming is producing two trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas annually. With new permits on the verge of completion he said, “We could quite easily reach 3.6 to 4.0 TCF, almost a doubling of gas.”
    “There’s some bottlenecks,” said Surdam noting pipelines and transmission lines. “It’s about the only thing that controls the pace of production.” He predicts production would climb in unison with expanded pipeline capacity.
    “It looks to me like it’s going to take a crisis,” said Surdam of the need for infrastructure. “I don’t think we’re going to see the federal government move short of a crisis. He mentioned canceled power plant projects across the nation, some in Wyoming, to underscore his point. If we had a crisis and we can get through it, we’d go from a ‘boom’ to an ‘explosion.’”
    Surdam said a close look at the electrical grid and growing demands reveal how close to a crisis the western U.S. may be. “To maintain the kind of economy and growth in the economy that we’ve all enjoyed and benefited from the last two decades, we need an increase of about two percent a year. To get from now to the year 2030 we’re going to need 80 Jim Bridger Power Plants, we’re going to need 13 large natural gas fired plants, five nuclear reactors and 75,000 wind turbines.” In a follow-up conversation with the Roundup Surdam said the figures are based on an annual report from the U.S. Department of Energy.
    Most of the equipment to meet the demands, as Surdam pointed out, lies overseas and involves a multi-year waiting list.
    As capacity is app-roached on the electrical grid Surdam said reliability is lost. “The National Regulatory Commission is predicting black outs and rolling brown outs in the western United States as early as 2009 and as late as 2011. There’s not enough time to solve the problem.”
    In the meantime Surdam said, “The value of energy and the power resources in Wyoming will increase substantially.” Demand, he predicted, will outpace supply in the near future. “We’re one of the few states in the nation with the capacity to increase power and energy production.”
    Crisis will bring pressure to Wyoming where resources are abundant and half the state is owned by the federal government. Surdam said it’s imperative for Wyoming to chart its own course in the near future before it’s decided by those looking to Wyoming in a state of panic to meet energy needs that have outpaced supplies.