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How energy is produced in the American West, the nation’s “energy breadbasket”

The Western Governors’ Association (WGA) calls the West the nation’s “energy breadbasket,” owing to the region’s vast and diverse energy resources. In its most recent report, “The State of Energy in the West,” the WGA provides a comprehensive survey of conventional and renewable energy as part of its year-long focus on energy.

In a previous post, we explored how energy consumption, spending, and prices compare in Western states and across the country. In this post, we shift our focus to the supply side to understand how energy is produced in the West. (Also see our post on the “United States of Energy,” a map that illustrates where the nation’s energy resources are located.)

Energy breadbasket of the U.S.

The West, which the WGA defines as a 19-state region extending as far east as Texas and South Dakota, plays a key role in meeting the country’s energy demands. The WGA dubbed the West the nation’s energy breadbasket for several reasons:

  • The West delivers nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wind energy.
  • California is the national leader in solar energy production, its output nearly triple that of the next highest-producing state (Arizona). Solar energy potential in the Southwest also ranks among the highest in the world.
  • Nearly all of the country’s geothermal resources are located in the West, home to 99.5% of installed national capacity in 2011.
  • In recent years, the West has accounted for close to 70% of the country’s natural gas and petroleum production.
  • Coal production in the West contributes 60% of the national total.

Below is a screenshot (click to enlarge) from our dashboard illustrating energy production in the West, based on 2012 figures.
Non-renewable energy production in the West
Renewable energy production in the West

Energy and the economy

Fossil fuels currently make up the largest share of state-level employment in the West’s energy sector. In 2009, the oil and gas industry accounted for more than 5% of total employment in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming. The coal industry in Wyoming is responsible for 14.2% of the state’s GDP and 8% of its work force in 2010. The state’s total coal output exceeds Russia’s.
Oil and gas as a share of employment, by state
Besides generating jobs, the fossil fuel industry also contributes to the region’s economy through severance taxes, which are applied to the extraction of some non-renewable resources. Five states in the West–Alaska, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming–have a severance tax endowment, which provides a revenue stream in perpetuity. Among all state-level severance taxes collected across the nation in 2011, roughly 85 % were in the West.

The growing renewable energy industry is also spurring job growth in the region. The wind industry alone has added 30,000 jobs throughout the West and generated over $290 million in property tax revenues.

Energy vision for the West

The West’s abundant energy resources play a pivotal role in both the regional and national economy, but energy development also carries environmental costs. Researchers have cautioned that energy sprawl can threaten the habitats of iconic western species, such as the sage grouse and pronghorn. The graphic below, from our land deck, shows the intersection of desert tortoise critical habitat and solar power potential.
Solar energy potential and desert tortoise habitat
As part of its 10-Year Energy Vision, the WGA is working to achieve a balance between responsible energy development and wildlife conservation by engaging in more proactive planning with various stakeholders.

The WGA’s State of the Energy report provides an accessible primer on energy resources in the West, in addition to reviewing topics such as energy efficiency, alternative vehicles/fuels, electricity transmission, and technology development in the sector. Given that the West provides a majority of the nation’s energy supply, the report should be useful for policymakers and residents living in and outside the West.

Data sources

The Western Governors’ Association, a non-partisan organization of 22 U.S. governors, represents 19 U.S. states and 3 U.S. territories. EcoWest typically defines the region as the 11 contiguous Western states, but “The State of Energy in the West” takes a broader view.

Downloads

Download Slides: State of Energy in the WestDownload Slides: State of Energy in the West (3.41 MB pptx)
Download Notes: State of Energy in the WestDownload Notes: State of Energy in the West (749.67 kB pdf)

Related posts

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Snow jobs: America’s $12 billion winter sports economy and climate change

The author at work. Photo by Andy Tarica.
The author at work. Photo by Andy Tarica.

Full disclosure: I love to ski and snowboard, so before reading further, you should know that I’m more of a passionate participant than neutral analyst of America’s snow sports industry.

But whether you’re a ski bum, X Games aspirant, or disinterested flatlander, it’s undeniable that a ton of money is changing hands when it comes to skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and other sports dependent on snow.

In the 2012/2013 season, 8.2 million Americans alpine skied at least once, 7.4 million people snowboarded, and 3.3 million people cross-country skied, for a combined total of nearly 57 million skier-visits. Snowmobiling, which is especially popular in the Upper Midwest, generated more than 7 million visits in just three states combined: Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

To cut to the chase: if greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb, climate change is going to endanger America’s winter sports industry. Although a warming atmosphere can hold more water vapor, the precipitation will be more likely to fall as rain than snow, so even parts of the West that get wetter overall could see dramatic reductions in snowfall.

A diminished snowpack will jeopardize water supplies, increase wildfire risks, and transform entire ecosystems. Compared to these impacts, harm to ski bums and resorts may seem trivial, but in economic terms, low-snow years can devastate the tourism that some communities depend on. In the 2009/2010 season, U.S. winter sports trips generated nearly 212,000 jobs, labor income of $7 billion, and total economic value of $12.2 billion.

To illustrate what winter sports mean to the U.S. economy, I’ve created a dashboard on this page that visualizes data in a report from two researchers at the University of New Hampshire. Below is a screenshot (click to enlarge).

EcoWest winter sports dashboard

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, two advocacy groups, contracted with Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson to examine winter sports tourism in 38 states. The December 2012 report also estimates how much money each state lost, in jobs and economic value, in a low-snow year compared to a high-snow year.

In a future post, we’ll take a closer look at what the science is telling us about trends in the Western snowpack, but the authors of this report paint a bleak portrait of what’s to come under business-as-usual emissions scenarios:

Without intervention, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow cover area, snowfall, and shorter snow season. Snow depths could decline in the west by 25 to 100 percent. The length of the snow season in the northeast will be cut in half.

Yikes. Better seize those powder days while you can. I know I am.

Below is a summary of some visualizations from the dashboard, the original study, and other data sources.

Snow sports widespread

Here in Colorado, winter tourism is a major economic driver, and it’s no shock that we’re tops in the nation for skiing/snowboarding visits. Colorado accounted for one-fifth of ski and snowboarding visits, while one-eighth took place in California. What surprised me was that all but 12 of the 50 states have a winter sports economy (in reporting their findings, the authors did lump together some alpine powerhouses, such as Illinois and Indiana). If you factor in snowmobiling, the winter sports industry has an impressive geographic reach. In the graphic below, the circles are sized by the number of skiing/snowboarding visits and colored according to the number of snowmobiling visits.

Skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling days

Data from another source, the National Ski Areas Association, confirms there’s plenty of skiing and snowboarding taking place outside of the West. I grew up skiing/skidding on the icy hills of Northern New Jersey, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and I can definitively state that the skiing out West is way better, but if you look at the number of visits to U.S. resorts, the Rockies and Pacific regions only make up about 55% of the total.

U.S. skier/snowboarder visits by region

Billions at stake in winter tourism

It’s hard not to spend money while skiing and snowboarding, even if you live in Colorado. Before hitting the slopes, I’ll often fuel up my car at the gas station and fill my belly at my local greasy spoon. At the mountain, my annual ski pass helps pay for the parking attendants, lift operators, and ski patrol. Single-day lift ticket prices are north of $100 at some ski areas, which explains why “resort operations” is the biggest box in the graphic below.

Economic value added of winter tourism industryMany ski areas have villages or minor cities at their bases with restaurants, shops, hotels, and spas. Whether it’s the glitterati buying up garish outfits or local yokels like me purchasing coffee for the drive home, money is circulating in the snow-based economy. In mid-February, at Denver International Airport, the wind-chill outside may be 10-below zero, but the baggage claim is a madhouse of travelers arriving from around the globe, ready to shell out big bucks.

In some cases, entire cities owe their existence to ski areas. Here in Colorado, communities such as Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge, and Telluride are synonymous with their ski mountains. These places see plenty of visitors in spring, summer, and fall. There’s actually some controversy about resorts getting too busy during the “off season.” Even so, winter sports are the magnet for many of these communities, snow is like manna from heaven, and the financial impact of winter sports extends far beyond chic destinations to the more humble places where planes land and tourists drive through. The map below shows that every Western state has more than 1,000 jobs connected to winter sports.

Winter tourism employment

It’s important to remember that the data in our dashboard only tells part of the story. The data focuses on the local economic impact of skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling trips. Airline tickets are not included. Nor are the thousands of dollars that people spend on equipment and clothing. Last season, nearly $1.8 billion was spent at snow sports specialty stores on apparel, equipment, and accessories (in roughly equal proportions), according to SnowSports Industries America. Consumers spent about $750 million online on winter sports products.

Low-snow years harm industry

To gauge the impact of climate change, the University of New Hampshire researchers examined what happened to snow sports visits during low-snow years and then estimated the economic hit in the 38 states they studied. As shown below, some states appear to be more resilient than others. Colorado, California, and Utah suffered declines that were less than the national average, but other states, such as Washington, Oregon, and New Hampshire, saw skier visits fall even more than the national average.

Impact of low-snow year on state ski industries

As an example, the graphic below shows that ski resorts in Montana lost $16 million in a low-snow year and winter tourism employment declined by 188 jobs due to the 4% decline in skier visits.

Impact of low snowfall on Montana winter tourism

Industry faces questionable future

Skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling are certainly not without their environmental impacts. Fly west out of Denver on a clear day and you’ll see a lot of clear-cut strips marking the runs at the ski resorts. Below is a photo I snapped of Loveland Ski Area, where I wrote some of this post in between runs.

Loveland Ski Area, Colorado
Loveland Ski Area and Eisenhower Tunnel, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

I’ve certainly done my share to cook the planet by driving into the mountains to ski and ride. A 114-mile round trip to Loveland from Denver causes my Subaru Forester to emit around 80 pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalent, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Calculator.

But for me and millions of other Americans, playing in the snow is essential to our well-being. We’ll neglect family, friends, work, the health of the planet, and other concerns in order to get our white powder fix. Call it an addiction or healthy habit, snow sports are more than fun and games: they’re also an economic engine that climate change threatens to freeze.

Data sources

Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, is the source for data on jobs, economic value, and snow sports visits in the 38 states.

Data on skiing and snowboarding is also available from Snowsports Industries America and the National Ski Areas Association.

Downloads

Download Slides: Winter SportsDownload Slides: Winter Sports (8.04 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Winter SportsDownload Notes: Winter Sports (1.94 MB pdf)
Download Data: Winter SportsDownload Data: Winter Sports (41.93 kB xlsx)

Related posts

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Tracking the ripple effects of conservation spending

If the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife pays to restore Chinook salmon habitat in Upper Klamath Lake, does it have an economic connection to an urbanite some 300 miles north in a Portland coffee shop?

The answer is yes, according to “The Conservation Economy in America,” a report commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The report, which examines the economic implications of spending by governments and the private sector to support conservation in the United States, shows that conservation investments ripple far beyond their initial investments. Based on the analysis, an estimated $38.8 billion is spent annually on conservation in the United States. Thanks to the multiplier effect, that direct spending leads to more than $93 billion of total economic activity in the country, including the generation of 660,000 jobs, $41.6 billion in salaries and wages, and $12.8 billion in tax revenues.

Southwick Associates, which produced the report, sums up their conclusions this way:

The money invested in supporting natural resource conservation […] provide much more than mere recreational benefits for those who hunt, fish or watch wildlife. These investments actually serve as a powerful driver of economic benefits that generate a positive ripple effect throughout the American economy.

Defining conservation investments

What qualifies as a conservation investment? In the context of this study, “natural resource conservation” refers to actions to protect or manage native fish and wildlife species, as well as land and water acquisitions to protect their habitats. The analysis does not include spending related to outdoor recreation, municipal parks, environmental education, historic preservation, or conservation spending outside the United States.

So what are actual examples of conservation spending? A public-sector expenditure could include payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to compensate landowners who improve wildlife habitat on agricultural land, through the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.

The report defines private-sector investments as conservation spending by nonprofit organizations, calculated based on the organizations’ annual Form 990 tax returns. Private sector spending could include, for instance, tree planting events carried out by the organization American Forests. (Additional details on the study’s methodology and data sources are available in the full report.)

Disparate contributions across states

In terms of conservation spending, not all states are created equally. Conservation spending is highest in California, with $4.3 billion in direct investments, as compared to the lowest level of $108 million in Rhode Island.  These figures include the direct effects of conservation spending across all sectors, through the immediate jobs, income, and tax revenues associated with the expenditures.

Total direct economic contributions of conservation spending, by state Total direct economic contributions of conservation spending, by state

If we consider per capita spending, we see that California actually drops to the lowest rank in the West, with $113 in spending, while a sparsely populated state like Wyoming climbs to the top at $1,306.

Aggregate and per capita conservation spending

Aside from population, it’s not clear which variables explain the state-by-state differences in spending levels. One could hypothesize that the amount of federal lands in a state or the effectiveness of its lobbying efforts might influence the scale of federal dollars allocated to states, but the report didn’t draw any statistical inferences or speculate on this question.

Economic impacts beyond the check

Since spending is not limited to direct contributions alone, the study also measured indirect contributions of conservation spending, referring to the wider economic activities that result from the direct expenditures. For example, trail restoration activities by the Yosemite Conservancy may lead the organization to purchase equipment and hire an environmental engineer to conduct a watershed analysis for the ecologically sensitive site. Analysts at Southwick Associates used the IMPLAN model  to estimate the jobs, income, and taxes that are generated as a result of these direct investments.

Nationwide, spending of $38.8 billion yielded a total economic output of $93.2 billion in 2011 (a ratio of 42 percent). In the West, $13.7 billion in direct conservation investments generated $20.9 billion of total economic activity in 2011 (a ratio of 66 percent).

Total economic contributions of conservation spending, including multiplier effects

In all but three states nationwide (Wyoming, South Dakota, and Texas), conservation investments yield higher economic returns than the costs of the original investment. In the big picture, these findings help rebut the classic “environment versus the economy” paradigm.

Return on investment: Direct conservation spending compared to total economic output

Incomplete price tag on nature

This report highlights that the impact of U.S. conservation spending is significant, and probably on a scale that is under-appreciated by most Americans.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that report evaluated only a narrow slice of the conservation economy. The value of ecosystem services, such as clean air and water, were excluded from the study, yet they carry a staggering economic value. One 1997 study of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital estimated the value at $16-54 trillion dollars per year.

Valuation of natural resources is a burgeoning field and experts are developing new tools for evaluating how conservation investments can deliver wider societal benefits and lead to improved economic outcomes.

Data sources

You can download the full report, “The Conservation Economy in America: Direct investments and economic contributions” from Southwick Associates.

Downloads

Download Slides: Conservation SpendingDownload Slides: Conservation Spending (10.41 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Conservation SpendingDownload Notes: Conservation Spending (1.45 MB pdf)
Download Data: Conservation SpendingDownload Data: Conservation Spending (46.02 kB xlsx)

Related posts

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.