After years of outmigration, people are moving back to the Great Plains, the vast dry expanse of prairie once discounted as the Great American Desert. Today our desert is giving Middle East deserts a run for their oil money with fast-moving shale plays opening up new opportunities in the heart of North America.
The US Census estimates that my once-home state of North Dakota with its Bakken shale is the fastest growing state in America right now. North Dakota grew by 2.2% from July 2011 to July 2012, followed by Texas (1.7%) and Wyoming (1.6%). (They throw Washington DC & their 2.1% growth rate in there, too, but DC isn’t a state yet.) While migration slowed down during the mortgage crisis, a lot of people, like me, are following jobs.
Here in my new home state of Wyoming, about 6,000 more people moved into the state last year than left. Natrona County (Casper) in the center of the state is well-situated to serve the strongest areas of the current oil play and posted the strongest population growth. Laramie County (Cheyenne) is benefiting from exploration of the speculative Niobrara shale, which extends down into Colorado, but also has a more diverse economy. The Wyoming State Economic Analysis Division has tracked migration up and down with the changing economy over the years. “Severe recession” in 2009 slowed population growth in 2010 and 2011. The economy improved in 2012, but continued pressure on the energy sector is putting up cautionary signs. Things are good now, but we’re not terribly confident about the future.
When we look at statistical areas (Metropolitan MSAs or Micropolitan areas), rather than at counties overall, we definitely see evidence of the growing energy economy. Midland, Texas, with a 4.6% population increase was the fastest growing MSA in the US last year. Casper, Wyoming, at 3.0% was the 8th fastest growing MSA, with Cheyenne, Wyoming, at 2.2% growth close behind. Williston, North Dakota, in the heart of the Bakken shale, grew 9.3% in just one year as the fastest growing Micro area, with Dickinson, ND, up 6.5% for the 3rd micro slot.
The US Census also released estimates recently from the American Community Survey (ACS) of county-to-county migration patterns in 2006-2010. The Wyoming economy was stronger in the first years of this survey period, then went into recession as noted above, before recovering. Even so, it is interesting to see where the ACS found people are being attracted to, and from, Laramie County, Wyoming.
The greatest number of people moved to Laramie County from Albany County, home of the City of Laramie and the University of Wyoming, followed by Larimer County, Colorado, home of Fort Collins and Colorado State University. While people do tend to move to adjacent areas when they do move, it makes sense that a lot of college students would move to Cheyenne after graduation. The next largest gross source of migration is Santa Barbara County, California, home of Vandenberg Air Force Base and likely source of new airmen for F.E.Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne.
The most attractive location for people leaving Laramie County was Natrona County (Casper), followed by Larimer County, Colorado, and Albany County. Casper’s oil jobs are likely attractive and kids have to go to college to come back for jobs. On a net basis—this was a time of net outmigration—Laramie County lost more people from Natrona County than we gained. We also had a net loss to adjacent Weld County (Greeley), Colorado, and Carbon County (Rawlins), Wyoming, as well as Harris County (Houston), Texas, a traditional headquarters city of the oil industry. Laramie County did gain more people from Santa Barbara and Albany counties than we lost. We also gained a large number of people from Macomb County, Michigan, in the Detroit metropolitan area, as well as net growth from Salt Lake County, Utah, and Fremont County (Riverton/Lander) here in Wyoming.
Where do we go from here?
What does the future have in store, for my county or for yours? It seems safe to say people will continue to follow jobs, if not as readily or often as before the mortgage crisis, so watch the employment numbers. The Census Bureau’s estimates of the components of population change also hold some hints. We know many rural counties show net negative natural change (fewer births than deaths), but school enrollment seems a better indicator of future rural population trends. Here in Laramie County, I’m most intrigued by the large net gain in International migration, more than twice as much as Albany County, the next largest destination. While I would expect the University of Wyoming in the City of Laramie to attract international immigration, I suspect Laramie County’s number may be related to the air force base, as it includes net movement of Armed Forces population. However the numbers add up, we’re bound to see change.