Tag Archives: coal

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.


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.

Annual Western poll shows strong support for conservation

For the past few years, Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project has been conducting a Conservation in the West poll, and the results continually show strong support for protecting the West’s environment.

When voters in six states are asked about issues such as energy development, safety regulations, and public lands, they tend to prefer renewable technologies, keeping a close watch on business, and protecting open space for habitat and recreation. But there are some interesting regional differences, especially when it comes to energy.

We’ve created a short PowerPoint presentation, available for download at the bottom of this post, that summarizes some findings from the Conservation in the West polls. You can also view the slide deck in this embed:

Annual poll of Western voters shows strong support for conservation from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Limited sources on Western environmental public opinion

In an earlier post, we discussed the national-level results from Gallup’s polling on the environment. In some cases, Gallup has been asking the same question over and over, year after for year, for decades.

Unfortunately, we haven’t found any comparable public opinion surveys of the West that offer such a lengthy time series. Some states in the region have longstanding surveys, such as California’s Field Poll, which was established in 1947. The Public Policy Institute of California also puts out a yearly poll on the environment.

But when it comes to understanding how Westerners think about things like wildlife, carbon regulations, and the water supply, the best source we’ve found is Colorado College’s yearly polls. Here’s how The New York Times summed up the 2013 results:

Nine in ten people polled said that national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife preserves are essential to the economy. Three in four said that those lands furnish good jobs, and more than seven in 10 said that no public lands should be sold to private corporations. Three in five said that drilling should not be allowed in “critical locations” near recreation areas, water sources or wildlife. Only 35 percent said that more public lands should be opened to “responsible energy development.

In tandem with two pollsters (Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates), Colorado College conducted a survey of 2,400 voters in six Western states:  Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Environment vs. economy: false dichotomy?

Although we hear a lot about the environment versus the economy, nearly 80 percent of respondents said we can simultaneously protect land and water while maintaining a strong economy.

State of the Rockies Conservation in the West Poll Environment vs. Economy

Below are the results from a similar question, which asked respondents whether they favored “reducing protections on land, air, and water” that apply to businesses in order to help the economy and generate jobs as quickly as possible. Fewer than one-fifth of Westerners supported that proposition.

State of the Rockies Conservation in the West Poll Environment vs. Jobs

Strong support for public lands

Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of Westerners believe that public lands support the economy and enhance the region’s quality of life, rather than “take land off the tax rolls, cost government to maintain them, and prevent opportunities for logging and oil and gas production that could provide jobs,” as shown in graphic below.
Conservation in West poll results

Diversity in state opinion on energy

Many of the questions in the past three years of polling have related to energy. When asked which energy sources they’d like to encourage, solar and wind power come out on top and coal is at the bottom. Of the fossil fuels, Westerners favor natural gas, even rating it above energy efficiency efforts. The results are similar when people are asked about what energy sources they’d like to discourage.

Colorado College State of the Rockies Conservation in the West Poll: Interest in Renewables

Regional views on energy

As we discuss in a previous post, the nation’s energy resources, both fossil and renewable, are not evenly distributed, so it’s no surprise that there are some significant differences among state residents when it comes to their energy preferences. The graphic below shows that in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, majorities want to encourage solar, but support is lower in the other states and fell between 2012 and 2013 in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming

Colorado College State of the Rockies Poll Solar Energy

When asked about encouraging coal as an energy source, Wyoming stands out. No surprise there: it’s the largest coal-producing state in the country. There was also a large jump in support for coal from 2012 to 2013 in Wyoming, Montana, and Utah, but a decrease in support in Colorado. Perhaps the growing support for coal in some states is a backlash against increasing federal regulation of the fuel source.

Colorado College State of the Rockies Conservation in the West Poll Coal

Hopefully, the State of the Rockies project will continue to commission this poll so that we can keep tracking changes in Western public opinion in the years to come. If you find other surveys on Western environmental issues, please let us know.

Data sources

You can download data from the 2013 poll, a presentation summarizing the results, and state-level reports on this page. Results from 2011 and 2012 are also available.


Thanks to Micah Day for assistance with this post.

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.

Flow diagrams of U.S. and Western carbon emissions

The United States emits around 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) each year. That’s roughly the annual CO2 exhaust of 1.2 billion cars, according to the U.S. EPA’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) equivalency calculator, and it’s nearly 20 percent of annual global GHG emissions.

U.S. and Western carbon flow diagrams from EcoWest on Vimeo.
Flow diagrams from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory provide informative visual summaries of the nation’s carbon emissions from generation to end use. These graphics, also known as Sankey diagrams, show how many GHGs originate from the burning of fuels and how many GHGs are attributable to different economic sectors. Think of the left side of the flow as the supply side, and the right as the demand side. In this deck, I’ve also compiled slides representing GHG emissions in the 11 Western states, which show some interesting patterns in GHG emissions from origin to end use.

Data on GHG emissions is only available at the national level. To understand state-by-state differences, Lawrence Livermore uses state-level energy use data to estimate the flow of GHGs. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration compiles such energy use data in the State Energy Data System (SEDS).

Sankey carbon

U.S. carbon emissions are generated by burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum products (gasoline, diesel, etc.); roughly 35%, 23%, and 42% of 2010 emissions, respectively. The carbon flows in individual states vary widely depending on state energy portfolios. End uses differ according to what industries predominate and population levels. Some of the patterns that jump out:

  • California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington are less coal-dependent and more petroleum dependent.
  • Natural gas accounts for a higher portion of carbon emissions in states like Nevada and Oregon.
  • Petroleum accounts for a lower portion of carbon emissions in Colorado and Wyoming.

Comparing Washington to Wyoming demonstrates how end use differs by state. Energy generation accounts for the bulk of carbon emissions in Wyoming, but the transportation and industrial sectors dominate in Washington. Wyoming is a major energy exporter to other states, while Washington relies heavily on hydropower, which does is essentially carbon-free.

When examining these slides, it’s important to remember that the size of the rectangles and the lines between them are not comparable from state to state. They show, within a state, where GHGs originate and terminate in various uses.

Lawrence Livermore also produces similar graphics for energy and water, and in another post, we provide a little background on Sankey diagrams, which are great tools for visualizing how commodities flow through systems.


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.