A political speech the West needs to hear

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  • NATIONAL RENEWABLE ENERGY LABS
  • 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.

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  • 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
  • ISTOCK, US BUREAU OF RECLAMATION, NATIONAL RENEWABLE ENERGY LAB
 

"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.

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