A political speech the West needs to hear


  • The Western Governors' Association in 2006 called for the region to develop 30 gigawatts of new clean energy by 2015. The association also wants to remove bureaucratic obstacles to enable construction of new regional transmission lines to "renewable energy resource zones" — rural areas with great potential for wind and solar generation. Colorado's 2007 Legislature passed an innovative law allowing utilities to build transmission lines to wind and solar zones, to spur development of wind and solar plants that don't yet exist. Also in 2007, California's agency regulating the electricity grid OK'd an urban utility's plan to build a $1.8 billion line into the Tehachapi area to spur new wind, solar and geothermal projects. Both actions are models for how other states could encourage new lines into wind and solar zones.

  • The federal government responded to the energy crisis of the 1970s by pouring more money into the Department of Energy's research and development projects. But as soon as the crisis ended, and Ronald Reagan took office, the funding faucet was reduced to a trickle, especially when it comes to renewable energy sources. Even as the nation faces another energy crisis, research funds are less than a third of what they were in 1978.

    Gallagher, k.S., Sugar, A, Segal, D, de Sa, P, and John P. Holdren, DOE

"One of our most urgent projects is to develop a national energy policy. The United States is the only major industrial country without a comprehensive, long-range energy policy. Our program will emphasize conservation ... solar energy and other renewable energy sources. ... We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent. There is no way we can solve it quickly. But if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices ... we can find ways to adjust."

Imagine those words spoken by the next president shortly after taking office on Jan. 20, 2009, continuing a theme originally established on the campaign trail. The words seem to be aimed directly at Westerners: "If we wait, and do not act, then ... we will feel mounting pressure to plunder the environment. We will have a crash program to build more nuclear plants, strip-mine and burn more coal, and drill more (oil and gas) wells. ... Intense competition will build up among ... the different regions within our own country."

The president concludes: "If you will join me so that we can work together with patriotism and courage, we will again prove that our great nation can lead the world into an age of peace, independence and freedom.

"This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war - except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy."

Inspiring and timely, indeed. But doesn't it sound kind of familiar? It should. The president who made those speeches did so 30 years ago. His name was Jimmy Carter.

When Carter tried to rally the nation during the first energy crisis, he understood that the West would be the key region in the effort. His policies weren't perfect - he pushed oil shale, for instance - but at least he had an overarching vision. It's been a long time since a president, or even a major presidential candidate, spoke so directly to our region and our fundamental issues.

Today, amid another energy crisis - with prices soaring, another rush to squeeze out the West's fossil fuels, and military ventures overseas related to our hunger for oil - we need a president who can address the issue in an inspiring and substantial manner. We need a leader to blaze a path toward real and lasting progress on energy.

So far in this election cycle, we have no such presidential candidate. Even in their much-ballyhooed debates in Nevada and California - where they were supposed to discuss Western issues - the candidates talked mostly of generic issues like Iraq and health insurance. Their debates and speeches are as relevant to New Jersey as to New Mexico - probably more so. Even the Western candidates in the race, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, speak more to a national audience than to Westerners.

They need to change their tune. Though candidates have been able to ignore the West in the past, it's high time to take us seriously. Every year, the West's burgeoning population means more votes; every year, the region becomes more diverse, independent and politically mature. The old political patterns are breaking down; we're no longer just a Republican stronghold in the interior with Democratic bastions on the coasts. We've become a political battlefield, and that means we'll have a much greater voice in choosing the next president.

Western voters will respond to those candidates who understand that we have our own concerns and unique issues that need to be addressed by the next president.

Since no actual candidate has done so, High Country News has written the kind of campaign speech that we, as Westerners, would like to hear. It doesn't cover all the issues that the region cares about - no single speech could do that. Instead, like Carter's speech, it focuses on the one issue that has the most impact on our economies, cultures, communities and landscapes. A talented speechwriter might add a few jokes or anecdotes, perhaps insert a folksy Western twang, but this speech concentrates on the important points.

And it would work pretty well across the board in the West, from meetings of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association or the Sierra Club to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.


"Thank you, Westerners, for showing up. I address you as Westerners because you're part of a community that stretches from the Dakotas to New Mexico and west to the Pacific. Your community has many divisions and conflicts, but you're unified by distinctive regional traits.

"You have the greatest open spaces, the most majestic scenery and wildlife, almost all the federal public lands and most of the tribal lands. You've come to expect that your water, air and land will be cleaner than in the rest of the nation. You also have the fastest pace of development consuming your landscape. You're the newest region of the U.S., so you're still forming your identity. You attract and favor entrepreneurs, and many of you are either finding new ways to make a living on the land or modifying the traditional ways to remain viable. There might be a mythical streak to it, but you still think of yourselves as living on a frontier.

"I've gained an understanding of the West by walking the ground and speaking with people like yourselves. I've watched salmon leaping up the fish ladders on the Columbia River dams. I've been with the crew on a Wyoming natural gas drill rig, on the night shift during a blizzard. I've stood on the front lines of the war against the monstrous wildfires. I've hiked through the ancient pueblos of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, where a previous Western community once grew, then hit its limits and moved on.

"Today's Westerners face a slew of issues, including drought, population growth and immigration. But there is one challenge facing the West above all: energy development. That issue drives pretty much everything. A few basics sum it up: Of all the 50 states, Wyoming is now number one in the production of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil. New Mexico, Colorado, California, Montana and Utah rank in the top 13. Your power plants burn the fuels to generate the electricity that powers the Western grid. Or you ship your gas or coal by pipeline or train to the Midwest and East, where it heats homes and powers televisions and computers.

Jan 18, 2008 12:47 PM

Fine goals, except for the Global Warming cultish b.s. and carbon taxing garbage.

Jan 18, 2008 06:03 PM

It's a start, but I was crossing my fingers and hoping it wouldn't be 98% MORE (let's generate more electricity for more people, using alternative energy sources) and only one brief mention of efficiency and conservation. I also hoped it wouldn't offer the false hope we can actually make progress on CO2 emissions while adding millions more people to the already unsustainable population of the West. A big compliment for the way you couched the jobs - not creating MORE jobs, in alternative energy production, but switching from dirty carbon-based energy jobs to clean energy jobs. And if you are customizing the speech for the West, what about water? You could also easily rewrite this speech to make the focus sustainability, and that's a message for the entire nation. You're halfway there, Ray. Now keep up the courage and tell us the whole truth, not just the one you think we want to hear!

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

Jan 18, 2008 06:06 PM

When you quoted Jimmy Carter, I stopped reading.  He was the worst president this nation ever had.  There are other important issues to be discussed other than just energy.  If we lose the battle over terrorism and the protection of our borders, nothing else matters.

Jan 18, 2008 10:05 PM

Great on the production side, but, not only for the west but the nation as a whole, we need to hear more on the conservation side, too.


That includes, or even starts with, encouraging states, especially in the West, to have progressively scaled property taxes to make people pay more for their energy-wasting McMansions, for example. Sliding water utility rates to get people to stop growing fricking Eastern lawns in the West would also help.


More tax credits to builders who build energy efficient and green homes or, to use the stick, tax penalties for developers who don't... or zoning regs requiring greener homes.


Steve Snyder 

Jan 21, 2008 11:02 AM

My Aboriginal friends here in Austraia say they are the custodians, not the owners, of the land & environment. The definition of a custodian is to be responsibile for something or someone, and I sense all indigenous peoples have this same concept of custodianship, ie caring for the land/environment. The sooner we, the descendants of European culture, understand we own nothing, but are merely custodians, the quicker the whole energy/global warming debate will be solved on a rational basis- & hopefully with wisdom.

The other word one of my indigenous friends' uses is "posterity" rather than "prosperity" ie what do we want ourselves,our family, our community, nation or world to look like in 50 years time? Believe me, how much money or possessions we have won't be important!!!

 Michael Cooper

Sydney Australia,   jon@cherry.com.au

Jan 21, 2008 11:03 AM

Good article, Ray!

As a candidate, maybe your speechwriters would have editied out the controversial Jimmy Carter and global warming parts, but this is otherwise an excellent speech.  Personally, I would have liked to see more emphasis on population control (ie, immigration reduction).

Trouble is, can you imagine any current Democrat or Republican candidate giving such a speech?  Neither can I.  Maybe we need a viable, non-crazy, third choice.

Bill Bliss

Jan 21, 2008 11:05 AM

On your renewable energy maps, you need actual numbers, not handwaving, or your maps aren't worth anything. Also, they need to be expandable. Either that of you need a link to the original maps at higher resolution.

Jan 21, 2008 11:07 AM

On your renewable energy maps, you need actual numbers, not handwaving, or your maps aren't worth anything. Also, they need to be expandable. Either that of you need a link to the original maps at higher resolution.

Jan 21, 2008 11:09 AM

I would rather hear the words spoken by power brokers on each side of the aisles in both the Senate & the House.

Jan 21, 2008 11:16 AM

Well it's a nice message, but unlimited growth is, ah, limited, I'm afraid. The near future will be a harbinger of a tough world at carrying capacity. That's always good for high drama but bad for life. At least as we have known it. Stay tuned oh ye grow our way to everything advocates.

Jan 28, 2008 11:19 AM

Wow. Based on these comments, it sounds like we've found the last two people on Earth who are still denying that global warming exists and is a problem.  Even President Bush no longer occupies that hallowed ground.  I guess that's one of the other aspects of the West that we should be much less proud of, the number of people with their heads buried in the sand. 

Jan 28, 2008 02:52 PM

Just to add to the mix---I really appreciated the Carter quotes because, whatever one says about his politics, it's hard to argue with the fact that he's done a lot of good since he left office.  To me, this establishes his credibility no matter what; I believe he meant what he said in this speech.

I also believe that if the country had followed his lead in energy conservation 30 years ago, we'd be in a lot better position today.  I wasn't old enough to vote for Carter, but I remember the emphasis we had in school at the time on conservation, and I think it was a good thing.

Rising gas prices are annoying, of course, but what can we expect when we're using a resource that is not inexhaustible?  

I also totally agree with the point that government subsidies should not be slanted so heavily toward fossil fuel producers.  After all, if an energy company is truly an energy company, shouldn't they be willing to change their emphases to fit with a growing market for renewable fuels?  Then they'd be eligible for government assistance just as anyone else would, even if subsidies were not quite as slanted to favor fossil fuel production.



Jan 29, 2008 04:00 PM

Anonymous on 1/18 may not think much of Pres. Carter, but he told us what to do about energy.  Put on a sweater,  turn the unnecessary appliances off, reset the thermostat and start conserving.  Unfortunately the American people didn't want to hear this, and kept up buying SUVs,  commuting in their own cars and believing that energy would continue  to be as cheap and available as ever. 

It may take several decades but eventually the American people will have to admit that Carter's advice was correct.

Edward C. Mangold

Feb 25, 2008 05:42 PM

Great goals, Ray- too bad our nation's energy policy seems so set in stone that no candidate, no matter how commited to clean energy, will be able to change it. I'll probably come off as a cynic saying this, but the single biggest political force in this country is inertia. Candidates will continue to ignore the West because everyone always has, and our government will continue to push fossil fuels becaue they always have. Using Carter as an example cuts both ways; the things he said 30 years ago were visionary then, and they still are today because no-one has acted on them. I don't mean to sound so downbeat, but I'm convinced that nothing will change no matter how loudly we scream.

To the commenter who said we need to focus on terrorism and protecting our borders- I would take the opposite view in that if we continue to burn fossil fuels and promote dirty energy, our land and the nation that inhabits it won't be worth protecting from terrorists and illegal immigrants.

John- Leadville, Colorado