On collision course: MX missile and energy development in West

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Energy development and the proposed MX missile deployment are on a collission course: The two would be in head-to-head competition for limited manpower, capital, and materials to ane xtent unprecedented in US history if the multibillion-dollar weapons system were given the final go-ahead.

Yet efforts to promote the twin national goals of energy independence and national defense are proceeding independently in Washington, with little apparent recognition of the potential conflicts and adverse regional effects of "fast tracking" both.

This, at least, was the general feeling among those attending a conference here on MX and energy sponsored by the Western Governors' Policy Office (WESTPO). More than 300 representatives from state and federal agencies and the private sector met last week to define the problems that can be expected and come up with recommendations on how best to deal with them.

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"We are dealing with an unbelievable, with a profound problem, the true size and character of which we are just beginning to understand," proclaimed Utah Gov., Scott Matheson (D).

The Rocky Mountain region, which emerged in the 1970s as the fastest-growing area in the country, faces the prospect of coping with the largest construction project in the history of mankind, the basing of the MX missile system, and greatly intensified oil and gas production, coal mining, and synthetic fuels production.

For some time local leaders such as Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm (D) have been worried that the region is "willing but not ready" for the added pressures of synthetic fuels production. With this conference, which concentrated on manpower issues, Western leaders grappled for the first time with the joint impact of MX and new energy activities. They found the picture almost overwhelming.

The conflict in demand for labor --should all the projects currently being planned in this area proceed as scheduled --was outlined by Nevada Gov. Robert F. List (R).HE summarized the results of a just-completed manpower supply and demand study for WESTPO.

"We have discovered some important and sovering facts regarding the manpower issue in the West. We face problems that could result in inflated wages, play havoc with cost estimates and budgets, and result in costly construction delays -- unless we plan for meeting our manpower needs early in the process of development and deployment," Governor List told those attending.

According to this study, direct employment demands in the region for all energy activities will grow by 66 percent, from 147,000 to 247,000 people in just five years. Currently, nonenergy mineral mining and smelting employs about 135,000 and also is expected to grow substantially. On top of this, MX missile deployment will require another 28,000 workers in 1986.

In total, the WESTPO study projects a demand for 128,000 new jobs by 1986, growing to 2.4 million in 1990. This is far more than the regional population can provide. "In the future, two out of every three new workers may have to be recruited from outside the region," List anticipates.

Competition for people with certain skills between MX and energy projects will be particularly acute. WESTPO analysts see demand for engineers increasing by 15 percent as a result. Yet, engineers are already in short supply nationally. Experienced managers, draftsmen, electricians, operators of earth-moving equipment, carpenters, and iron workers are likely to be neededin record numbers as well.

List is particularly concerned about the "whirlpool effect" that accompanies a project that absorbs a large percentage of the available work force. This is the tendency of these "superprojects" to vacuum up all available workers in the area. Local businesses, farmers, and ranchers cannot compete with the wages offered by the construction projects. They are forced to hire unskilled transients attracted to the area for inflated salaries or go out of business. At the least, the situation is inflationary. At worst, the area's permanent economic base withers away under the pressures of the project.

An competing for workers may not be the worst problem local businesses face. They also could find themselves competing for capital, with the cost of borrowing money driven up substantially.

Says Bruce Rockwell, chairman of the Colorado National Bank: "We are now asking ourselves who the nation's No. 1 enemy is: the Soviet Union or inflation?"

Simultaneous construction of the MX and development of a synthetic fuels industry will put tremendous inflationary pressures on the entire US economy, Mr. Rockwell believes. "If I ever saw built-in inflation, energy development and MX are it," he says.

Public control of these large construction projects will monopolize large amounts of capital and drive the cost of money up for all other forms of enterprise, he pointed out. Delays in these projects caused by manpower limitations or other problems will only increase their inflationary effect.

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