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for people who care about the West

Two weeks in the West

Guvs get their green on


Western governors are often thought of as bolo-tie and cowboy boot-wearing good ol’ boys and gals uttering colloquialisms with a drawl, not as environmentalists. But regional state bosses have swaggered in a green direction as of late.

On Feb. 26, the governors of New Mexico, California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon all signed on to a regional pact that will limit greenhouse gas emissions and form a cap and trade program for carbon. The states have six months to agree on a regional emissions target, and 18 months to come up with ways to meet it.

Though each of the five states already has or will soon have emissions limits in place, the regional initiative makes the effort more efficient, says Judy Greenwald of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. By allowing for carbon trading across state lines “you can do more for the environment for less money,” she says.

Western guvs are also taking their green shitkickers into the gasfields. In order to streamline the gas and oil drilling permitting process, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted some drilling projects from environmental analysis. On Feb. 27, the Western Governors’ Association urged Congress to discard those exemptions and restore restrictions to protect wildlife corridors and habitat.

Coal is king of the energy world — Department of Energy forecasts say the black stuff will be the number-one power source for decades to come. Lately, though, chinks have appeared in the king’s armor.

Most significant is the $45 billion bid by private equity firms to buy out TXU, the largest energy provider in Texas. The buyers have promised to spend more on energy efficiency, tie executive pay to environmental performance and cancel eight of 11 coal plants that the company currently plans to build. Western coal will feel the pain: The canceled plants would have burned millions of tons of coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Eight plants are just a drop in the bucket — some 150 coal plants, 37 of them in the West, are slated for construction in the next decade or so. But emboldened environmentalists and some analysts see the buyout’s terms as the first step in a free-market retreat from coal that will ultimately result in the shelving of planned plants.

Coal took other hits recently:

• The Federal Railroad Administration denied a $2.3 billion loan for a new rail line that would move coal out of the Powder River Basin to power plants to the east. Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad officials won’t give up yet; they’re now looking for private investors. Two railroads already operate out of the basin, but utilities say the existing lines lack adequate coal-carrying capacity to keep up with demand.

• A bill in the New Mexico Legislature giving the proposed Desert Rock coal-fired power plant an $85 million tax-break appears doomed — the House nixed it and the Senate seems ready to do the same. Sithe Global, the plant’s builder, claims it needs the break to avoid double taxation since it also will pay taxes to the Navajo Nation.

Frank Maisano, spokesman for Sithe and the energy industry group Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, says that losing the tax break will be “hurtful” but won’t necessarily kill the plant. Meanwhile, he sees a bright future for coal, in spite of recent hitches: “We’re heavily reliant on coal to provide affordable electricity. If you have to have power in the short term, coal is the only way to get it, really.”

Divine Strake, the quasi-nuclear explosion scheduled for this spring in the Nevada desert, has been axed. The 700-ton pile of conventional explosives would have created a blast 70 times bigger than the largest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal. Citizens and politicians downwind of the blast opposed the test, saying it might kick radioactivity into the air that was left over from four decades of nuke tests.

Farmers in Colorado have had a hard time finding help lately thanks to federal raids and new state laws targeting undocumented immigrants. Now, the state Department of Corrections hopes to launch a pilot program to ease the labor shortage: Put prisoners — at a wage of 60 cents per day — to work in the fields.


Western wagering

342: Casinos operating in Nevada

597: Schools in Nevada

$1.137 billion: Amount wagered in gambling in Montana during 2006

$1,215: Amount wagered per capita in gambling in Montana during 2006

$1,435: Amount spent per capita on groceries in Montana in 2002*

$72: Amount spent per capita at beer, wine and liquor stores in Montana in 2002*

$178: Amount spent per capita at beer, wine and liquor stores in Wyoming in 2002*

1: Number of casinos in Wyoming

3: Western states without a state lottery (Nevada, Utah, Wyoming)

57: Number of tribal casinos in California

* most recent data available

Sources: Nevada Gaming Control Board, Nevada Department of Education, U.S. Census Bureau, Montana Department of Revenue, Wind River Casino, Wikipedia, Oregon Lottery Commission, California Gambling Control Commission, Colorado Division of Gaming