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New West Daily Roundup for Mar. 10, 2016

Today in New West news: North Idaho College to start offering bachelor in computer science, Center for Biological Diversity files protest against BLM auctions, and layoffs possibly imminent in Wyoming coal mines.

After four years of preparation, according to the Coeur d’Alene Press, North Idaho College (in conjunction with the Moscow’s University of Idaho) has announced they will start offering a baccalaureate program in computer science. Lawmakers as well as Northern Idaho reps predict the program will employ 150-200 people all told. Indeed, with tech becoming more and more important to New Western state economies across the board, it’s all the more imperative schools like North Idaho get with the times and offer such a program. From the Coeur d’Alene Press:

When voting on the funding, Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the program addresses educational opportunities necessary for students in North Idaho and it is vital to the growing number of businesses in North Idaho that can put the computer science students to work in well-paying jobs.

“We are hopeful that it will be the first step to creating a pipeline for employers in North Idaho,” Keough said. “It will be a big boost for the economy and educational offerings in the area.”

Buck said the local legislators were key to successfully starting the new program. In fact, he said, some of the legislators, like Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, wanted to fund the program before it was even ready to go.

“They picked it up and ran it across the finish line,” Buck said, adding he is grateful for all the work they put into the project.

“I have had several businesses tell me that the only impediment to further growth is the lack of workforce, and this program would solve it,” Malek said in a prepared statement. “Cybersecurity needs to be more of an emphasis in North Idaho, and expanding accessibility to computer science degrees is the first step toward that.”

Buck said there are several key technology businesses that have been helping to develop the program. He mentioned Greg Green, owner of FatBeam, and many other tech companies provided internships and other support to get the project up and running.

He said Shawn Swanby, CEO of Ednetics in Post Falls was also instrumental.

“Our business has much more expansion potential than we can realize given the restraints in the workforce,” Swanby wrote in a prepared statement. “A bachelor’s degree program in computer science will be a game-changer.”

Probably one of the most dedicated supporters of the project was Steve Meyer, owner of Intermax Networks. Buck said when he arrived in Coeur d’Alene five years ago, Meyer asked him “How are we going to bring a computer science program to Coeur d’Alene?”

Meyer said software development is the fastest-growing job sector in the country, with some of the highest salaries.

“This is great news for North Idaho,” Meyer said in a press release. “Computer engineering and software development is behind most new technology achievements whether it be in robotics, big data or medical research. It is hard to grow software companies here because we don’t have the talent base. This U of I program is a giant leap forward, not only for North Idaho but for all of Idaho.”

Earlier this week, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it had filed a formal administrative protest against the Bureau of Land Management—specifically against an oil and gas lease auction planned for May, which entails over 1,000 acres of land in Montana and the Dakotas. According to a press release from the Center, the move follows a protest filed last week against a Wyoming auction also scheduled for May—entailing 27,000 acres. In each, the Center cited concerns over climate change as well as sage grouse habitat. From the Center:

“Each new federal fossil fuel lease takes us closer to climate disaster,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center. “Leaving a livable climate for future generations requires keeping fossil fuels in the ground now, and we should start with the public lands that President Obama controls.”

The protests call on the BLM to abandon its auction plans and keep fossil fuels in the ground to protect the climate, wildlife and public lands. Both protests identify the plans’ failure to analyze climate impacts or consider an alternative that would suspend public lands fossil fuel development to protect the climate.

The Wyoming plan also contradicts recently adopted sage-grouse management direction to “prioritize” leasing outside grouse habitat; more than 75 percent of the acres to be auctioned are within grouse habitat.

“It’s difficult to trust BLM’s reassurances that it would work to keep oil and gas out of sage-grouse habitat when it turns around and immediately starts offering lease sales that are nearly nothing but sage-grouse habitat,” said McKinnon. The Montana protest also identifies BLM’s failure to protect habitat for at-risk grassland bird species, including the rare and sensitive Sprague’s pipit.

Today’s protest is part of a rapidly growing national movement calling on President Obama to define his climate legacy by halting new federal fossil fuel leases on public lands and oceans — a step that would keep up to 450 billion tons of potential carbon pollution in the ground. “Keep It in the Ground” rallies opposed to federal fossil fuel auctions have been growing across the country, and have caused several of those auctions to be canceled.

Keeping with fossil fuels, down in Wyoming, we’ve been following the downturns in the coal industry, driven largely by falling energy prices, but despite a suite of bankruptcy declarations and self-bonding deals, Wyoming mines haven’t had to let go of many, if any, employees. However, according to the Casper Star Tribune, companies may not stay so resilient much longer, as 2016 could usher in a wave of layoffs as companies scramble to trim costs and avoid closing:

Realistically, if these type of market conditions persist, you’re going to see more impact on employees,” said Jim Thompson, who oversees coal research at IHS Energy, a consultancy.

Wyoming mines have largely avoided the mass layoffs seen in Appalachia because they are surface mines, capable of producing large quantities of coal with fewer employees.

The average Wyoming miner, for instance, was responsible for 29 tons of coal per hour in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A West Virginia miner, by comparison, produced 2.4 tons per hour.

The low labor costs help make Wyoming coal more economically competitive with natural gas than its Appalachian and Illinois Basin competitors.

And that has likely contributed to the hesitancy among coal companies to lay off employees at western operations, analysts said. A slight increase in natural gas prices, now near 17-year lows, would make Wyoming coal competitive again.

“In general, folks like to hang onto their workers because it’s hard to get them back,” said Matt Preston, a coal analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

The sentiment is reflected in employment data. Output from Wyoming mines has fallen 14 percent since 2011, but employment has decreased by 6 percent, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Last year, Cowboy State mines eliminated 104 positions, a decrease of 2 percent. Wyoming mines reported 6,560 employees at year’s end. Production, meanwhile, fell by almost 20 million tons, or 5 percent, to nearly 370 million tons.

The Tribune notes that even among companies like Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy, each in various states of bankruptcy proceedings (and in Peabody’s case, avoidance) layoffs have not been too severe, as the companies continue to mine. But, as Thompson notes in the article, if market prices stay this low, layoffs will likely be inevitable.

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