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Survey finds Wyomingites favor natural gas as a future source of energy most and carbon capture least

Stephanie Joyce

Two University of Wyoming (UW) researchers wanted to understand how Wyomingites feel about the future of energy, including their perceptions and values.

Selena Gerace and Jessica Western initially completed asurvey of residents back in 2019, finding that natural gas was the most preferred source of energy with nuclear being the least. Since then, Wyomingites have endured some changes – like the COVID-19 pandemic, the announcement of plans to open the TerraPower nuclear plant in Kemmerer and the plans to close several coal plants over the next 15 years.

Gerace and Western decided to offer an updated version of the survey in 2022 to see if these changes affected people’s thoughts on energy. They found that people are still very favorable to natural gas, but they are increasingly interested in some renewable options too.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan interviewed Gerace and Western to learn more about the survey results and how they changed over the years.

Caitlin Tan: Selena, could you talk about some of your big takeaways from the research, and also dive in a little more into how COVID might have changed things?

Selena Gerace: So in that 2019 survey, we did still find that there was strong support for conventional energy industries in Wyoming overall. And what we found about some of the newer energy technologies, like carbon capture, utilization and storage, was that there was just a lot of people saying that they didn't know about them yet. And we found that to really be an opportunity that people would like more information about these before they have an opinion about them.

We found that a lot of people still find that these conventional energy industries provide a lot of benefits to the state, in terms of state and local tax revenue and jobs and reliable energy. We also found that what Wyoming residents really value about the state of Wyoming and living here has a lot to do with our open landscapes. They value the aesthetics of the place, the biological diversity and being able to recreate and be out in the communities, as well as the economics of being able to make a living and make a life here.

CT: And so how does that play along with energy?

SG: So what we were finding was that in a lot of cases, people find that energy really supports that ability for them to live in their communities, to make a living in their communities, to be able to enjoy the types of lifestyles that they want and to be able to stay in Wyoming – which is the place that provides all of those opportunities for outdoor recreation, and the access to biological diversity and our open spaces.

CT: So touching on carbon capture. One of the survey questions was, ‘How much do you favor or oppose each one in the future?’ – each one being different types of energy in the state. Carbon capture came in at the lowest with 47 percent of residents favoring it. Jessica, could you tell us about these results?

Jessica Western: Carbon capture, utilization and storage is at 47 percent, but actually its favorability is higher than it was in 2019. The level of support then was 35 percent. So it's gone up by 12 percent. And the same is true, for example, for nuclear energy, which was at 36 percent favorability in 2019, and is now at 57 percent. So I think what we're seeing is we've been having these conversations in Wyoming about energy technologies, and the more we learn, the more we understand the trade offs and the more we are interested in them.

CT: It is interesting when we talk about energy industries like nuclear, rare earth minerals and carbon capture, they are all newer subjects for the general public that we haven't traditionally heard in mainstream media over the last several decades. So it sounds like as people learn more about these different types of energy sources, they can then make an informed opinion.

JW: That's exactly right. And so we hope that these survey results are going to support leaders in the industry, and then governance in their decision making. As well as, provide the Wyoming public with an understanding of where we are as a state regarding these fast moving developments.

CT: Now, Selena, with the areas where there is a little uncertainty or less favorability, like nuclear energy or carbon capture, how could Wyoming work to try to develop trust with residents?

SG: I think that that's a really interesting part of these survey results because what we really see is that these technologies that have the lower amount of total support, it's not that they actually have a lot of opposition. Like carbon capture, utilization and storage – it's that a lot of people are saying they're either neutral or not sure, which really indicates that people are looking for more information about this before they make up their minds. So that tells us that there's a real opportunity here for education and outreach around these things, as well as community engagement – to talk more about these energy technologies that maybe people just don't have a lot of personal experience with yet, and they would like to understand them better before they form an opinion.

CT: Is this study going to continue? And is there another phase?

SG: Yes. So we are replicating the full social license study that we did in 2020, which is the next phase of the research where we get into kind of the, ‘Why do Wyoming residents have these beliefs and values around energy?’ It's called a Q study. And it consists of a series of interviews with Wyoming residents, as well as a sorting process, where they sort different statements according to how much they agree with them. We then analyze the results and pick out different themes that represent how Wyoming residents are thinking about energy.

CT: Interesting. So right now we know how people feel, and these results will give us the reasons as to why they feel that way?

JW: That's exactly right. A survey is great at accumulating a lot of information across a lot of people. It's kind of two dimensional that way, but it doesn't tell us why people are saying what they're saying.

CT: Well, we look forward to those newer results.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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