A Tale of Two Regions

Changes in the Energy Industry Lead to Dramatic Shifts in Eastern Utah

By Tom Haraldsen

October 7, 2014

Geographically, Uintah and Duchesne counties couldn’t be any closer to Carbon and Emery counties. Besides their location, these four counties also share common landscapes, demographics, populations and histories of capturing some of Utah’s most viable natural resources.

But today, what these regions don’t share is economic growth and success—largely due to reasons out of their control. While both regions remain fertile grounds for providing major sources of the nation’s power, the energy industry has changed and thus altered their circumstances.

The Best of Times

In both Uintah and Duchesne counties, the boom in oil and natural gas development has raised the economy in almost every category. Mining activity was up more than 8 percent in Uintah and up nearly 14 percent in Duchesne from 2012 to 2013. Manufacturing rose 5.1 percent in Uintah and a whopping 14.8 percent in Duchesne for that same period. In other year-to-year comparisons, gross sales in all categories were up, financial activities increased from 6 to 8 percent, and perhaps most importantly, unemployment was lower than 3 percent (much lower than the state’s overall average, and less than half of the national average). Residential valuations were also at or near all-time highs.

Though a report compiled by the Utah Department of Workforce Services showed an average level of unemployment of 24,240—a result of 140 fewer jobs than in 2012—in Uintah and Duschesne counties, employment payroll was up about 2 percent.

In Uintah County, growth in employment occurred largely in local government and other services. Duchesne County continued to exhibit growth in mining, while construction activity fell a bit. Non-farm payroll wages saw a 4 percent increase—up $16.8 million. The populace of the Uintah Basin communities has contributed greatly to that growth.

“Our area is very supportive of our energy folks,” says Tammie Lucero, executive director of the Uintah County Economic Development office. “Oil shale, oil sands, natural gas in the Basin—the momentum is still moving forward here.”

Lucero’s region has also had its battles with environmentalists, but she says “public land is always an issue in parts of the Basin. We believe it doesn’t have to be one way or the other—that energy development and conservation can work together.” She quotes Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent comments that the state “understands how important energy development is in our state. We can co-exist, and we do.”

“We have the natural resources here, and they are where they are,” Lucero says. “These companies are fully aware of the environment and the need to protect it. They have families that live here as well. The community is very supportive of energy development and its impact. Sixty percent of the jobs in the Uintah Basin are related to the industry, from retail to restaurants to support services. The average wage in Uintah County is No. 1 in the state of Utah, and in Duchesne County, it’s No. 2 in Utah. We know the importance of making a living.”

The Worst of Times

In Carbon and Emery counties, coal is king, as it has been for more than 100 years. While still a vital and very necessary source for fuel and power development, coal has fallen out of favor in many places, especially as natural gas has become so plentiful and inexpensive. The residual effects have been dramatic in these two counties. Year-to-year numbers from 2012 to 2013 show construction down by 20 to 30 percent, mining activity in Emery County down nearly 25 percent, gross taxable sales of all items down 1 percent, financial activities down 10.8 percent, and unemployment ranging between 4.8 to 5.1 percent. These aren’t just one-year trends, either. And they’ve become a growing concern for everyone involved.

“There’s a ‘feeling’ in a lot of places here, almost like a change in the atmosphere,” says Taylor Smith (name changed to protect identity), a local business owner in Price. “I wouldn’t call it doom and gloom, but it’s like there’s a shroud of pessimism that kind of prevails over the entire area here. Everyone wants things to return to the way it used to be.”

For both Carbon and Emery counties, the economy has been driven by the coal industry. A decline in demand for coal, and subsequent economic consequences, has bled over into the counties’ economies as a whole. According to DWS, the Castle Country population seemed to react to the difficult labor economy in 2013 as Carbon County’s population is estimated to have dropped by 1.5 percent as of June 2013 compared to the previous year. Emery County’s population also fell by 1.5 percent over the same period. These were the largest county-level estimated population percentage declines in the state in 2013.

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