THE PUBLIC EYE: Welcome to Romneyland

By Bob Burnett
Friday September 14, 2012 - 08:59:00 AM

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s policies would degrade American life. If Romney had his way, the US would follow the dysfunctional course of Wyoming, a state run by big oil and gas companies and governed by conservative Republicans. A state where pursuit of corporate profits trumps quality of life.

In Romney’s acceptance speech he promised, “By 2020, North America will be energy independent by taking full advantage of our oil and coal and gas and nuclear and renewables.” Reframing the Republican mantra “drill, baby, drill,” Romney’s energy plan would “open America’s energy reserves for development” and “provide a rational and streamlined process to regulation.” A Washington Post analysis of the plan concludes Romney would “Open all federal lands and waters for drilling, including the entire Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Currently, the Interior Department has the power to issue drilling permits for Federal lands and waters; “Romney would give that power to states.” In addition, Romney would “approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil sands from Canada to the Texas gulf coast.”

To facilitate his full-throttle approach, Romney would significantly weaken the regulatory power of Federal agencies. He would, “Strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.” In addition, Romney would “remove obstacles and regulations” that impede the development of coal. (Romney has called the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts “outdated” and said “they need to be overhauled.”) 

If this sounds familiar, it’s the strategy Republicans have been using in Wyoming since the sixties. The Cowboy State is the ninth largest in size, 97,105 square miles, but last in population with 568,158 residents. A state of vast open spaces, it is known for its beautiful parklands on the west – 48 percent of Wyoming land is owned by the Federal government including Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks – and high plains prairie to the east. In recent decades Wyoming has also been known for its vast supplies of energy; it’s the number one state in coal production (including coal-bed methane), 4th in natural gas and 7th in oil. Most of the mines and wells are in the eastern part of Wyoming, but in recent years there’s been a push west to property adjacent to and, in some cases, inside Federal lands. 

Although coal, gas, and oil have always been important to Wyoming, the modern era begins in the seventies when the energy crisis produced an oil and coal boom that led to a 52 percent increase in population. (This decade also saw the growth of the Wyoming Republican Party and the emergence of Dick Cheney, who served as the Cowboy state’s only Representative from 1979 to 1989.) The Wyoming economy continued to be dependent on oil and coal even through difficult times in the eighties and nineties. “The current energy surge in Wyoming took off in the early 2000s... Between 2000 and 2006, the production value of oil and gas in Wyoming skyrocketed from $7.3 billion to $17.6 billion. Coal production values also increased at a more modest pace, rising from $2.6 billion in 2000 to $4.0 billion in 2006.” (Today’s Wyoming economy has only a 5.6 percent unemployment rate – government is the largest employment sector but coal, gas, and oil remains the largest private employer at 9.6 percent.) Not surprisingly, energy companies heavily influence the Wyoming Republican Party and state politicians favor a drill, baby, drill policy oriented towards fossil fuels while advocating relaxation of relevant regulations.  

In response to the Gulf Oil Spill, President Obama noted the “scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them.” This relationship between the Department of Interior’s Material Management Service and the coal, gas, and oil industry was described by a Wyoming non-profit news service WyoFile: “A former chief executive of Halliburton, [Vice President Dick] Cheney took an early and very active interest in energy policy and placed several Wyoming political friends in key positions in the Department of Interior… Cheney then chose Thomas Sansonetti, a prominent Cheyenne lawyer and GOP activist, to head the team choosing top personnel for the Department of Interior, which oversees Minerals Management Service.” 

Because of the close relationship between the Wyoming coal, gas, and oil industries and the agencies that regulate them, there are a wide variety of environmental problems in the Cowboy state: lax law enforcement, dirty air and water, destruction of wilderness, depletion of vulnerable species, and on and on. (For example, Wyoming is ranked 7th in hydraulic “fracking,” the injection of Toxic Release Inventory chemicals to release oil and gas.) 

What we see in Wyoming is the consequence of the GOP “free market” philosophy: let the coal, gas, and oil industry have its way and ignore the common good. Given Mitt Romney’s campaign statements, it’s what would happen if he became President. He would turn the United States into fifty versions of Wyoming. Welcome to Romneyland. Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at