« Return to this article

Know the West

A political speech the West needs to hear


"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.

"The dams on your rivers make your region the leader in hydropower. Washington, California and Oregon are the top three states; Idaho ranks fifth, Montana sixth and Arizona ninth in hydropower. "For more than a century, these resources have been developed here, making your region the Old Energy Frontier.

"However, your West also leads the nation in the potential to generate renewable energy from the wind. You're the leader for potential solar energy and in the capacity to generate electricity from geothermal formations. You're even the top region for the potential to harness the energy from ocean waves. And you have significant potential to generate energy from biomass - from forest thinnings, dairy manure and crops.

"So you are blessed and you are cursed. You have Old Energy - with all its benefits and drawbacks. And you're poised to lead the nation and the world through a historic transition by blazing a different energy path. This will mean some hardships, but ultimately it will bring progress, new jobs and greater prosperity. If, together, we take the right steps, the West will become the world's New Energy Frontier.


"Throughout the 30 years since the last energy crisis, our national leaders and corporations have been partying on fossil fuels. The nation's appetite for energy keeps rising, and now that ravenous appetite is being strangled by a shortage of fuels. Prices are spiking, and many experts believe we're nearing the end of an era - we're not likely to discover enough feasible new supplies. It's way past midnight at the fossil fuel party, folks, and that inspires desperate actions that Westerners feel most of all.

"For the last seven years, the current president, with his background in the oil industry, has had his hand on the fossil fuel throttle. He's pushed drilling and mining above all other uses of public lands and resources in the West. True, this has brought paychecks and jobs. But those benefits are short-lived and not sustainable in the long term. Meanwhile, you Westerners have watched your land get torn up, the wildlife chased away, the air and water sullied. Despite attempts to extract fossil fuels responsibly, the results often end up looking like vandalism, violating Western qualities and values.

"And in the biggest threat of all, the carbon emissions - from the Old Energy power plants and the leaky wells and pipelines and the vehicles that burn those fuels - cause global warming and climate changes that will challenge generations to come.

"The current president has told the West what he wants to do: Extract the remaining fossil fuels to the point of exhaustion, and ramp up uranium mining, and build a big nuclear waste dump to encourage new nuclear power plants. Is that all you want? I don't think so. "As your next president, I'll help you find the way to fulfill your potential as the New Energy Frontier.

"This year, the wind, sunlight, geothermal rocks and ocean waves will generate less than 2 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. Federal researchers - some of the world's top experts - say that if we get into gear, we can multiply our New Energy production by 10 times in the next couple of decades. It's even reasonable to generate half the nation's electricity with New Energy by 2030, they say. This electricity can power vehicles, homes and workplaces.

"The New Energy industries have greatly improved their technologies since their birth in the last energy crisis. The price of their electricity has plunged; they are more competitive with fossil fuels, and they have far fewer environmental impacts. They still have weaknesses - mainly the intermittency of wind and solar rays - but technologies and strategies are emerging to solve those.

"While the federal government has stalled, Westerners, through the recent actions of your governors, legislatures and voters, have moved forward. Many Western states, and the Western Governors' Association, have adopted policies to require utilities to buy more electricity from New Energy projects. Private investment money, much of it from California's software industry, is pouring into New Energy companies in the West.

"Companies based in Europe and other places where New Energy is more established are proposing new projects in the West. There's a surge in wind, solar and geothermal projects. Biofuel refineries are popping up amid Colorado farmland, and it won't be long before your coastal waves are generating power. It's an exciting time.

"Yet the entrepreneurs struggle to compete with the Old Energy interests, largely because Old Energy has more backing from the federal government. As president, I'll change that. I'll roll back economic policies and infrastructure that favor Old Energy. I'll allow New Energy to compete fairly.

"As a first priority, I'll lead Congress to adopt a system for realistic pricing of electricity from fossil fuel plants. That means a carbon tax or a 'cap and trade' permitting system to bill companies for at least a fraction of their global warming impacts. That would raise the cost of Old Energy and make the New Energy more attractive in the marketplace.

"Then, I'll make the tax policies and subsidies fairer. The federal government currently provides $50 billion to $100 billion each year in tax breaks, other incentives and subsidies for energy development. Sixty-five percent of that goes to fossil fuels and nuclear power gets 12 percent. Wind, solar and geothermal combined get a measly 8 percent. I'll change that math.

"Some of the key incentives are federal tax credits for developers of wind, solar and geothermal projects. At various times since they were initiated during the last energy crisis, some of those tax credits have expired or been reduced; some have since been revived or increased. This roller-coaster has created uncertainty - investors and companies often don't know what the tax situation will be in two years, so they can't make solid plans for long-term projects. Those tax credits will expire at the end of this year, unless Congress acts. I'll work with Congress to extend the credits for six to eight years in order to give the entrepreneurs some stability.

"As president, I'll also do more to provide federal loan guarantees for New Energy projects, which will encourage conservative bankers to finance new projects. The government already offers guarantees for energy projects; the only taxpayer cost comes if projects fail. That's a diminishing risk these days, with the advances in New Energy technology. But the loan guarantee program now favors nuclear and coal over renewables. We need to do a lot more with loan guarantees for renewables. It's a strategy that's proven effective.

"I'll also encourage discoveries - the equivalent of the Lewis and Clark Expedition - by increasing federal investment in energy research. The government is now spending only one-third of what we did each year during the last energy crisis. Researchers say we're on the verge of important breakthroughs in storing wind and solar energy. Engineers have already learned how to store solar energy in molten salts, making power from the sun available up to 18 hours every day. Some say they're close to developing a way to spray photovoltaic films onto panels, which would make solar power a lot cheaper. The West already has research centers in the National Renewable Energy Lab near Denver and the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, and in the entrepreneurial companies now springing up in the region. In the future, the West will export both energy and discoveries made in its labs.

"Some of the biggest moves I'll make on the New Energy Frontier have to do with the grid of electricity transmission lines. We need to build new lines into the isolated areas where our wind and solar resources are most concentrated. I'll do more to push agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management to site transmission lines to facilitate New Energy development.

"I'll use two gigantic federal tools in the West - the Bonneville Power Administration, which runs hydropower dams on the Columbia River system, and the Western Area Power Administration, which runs more than 50 dams on the Colorado River system and other rivers. Those federal agencies own big transmission lines - the power backbones of the West. They could build new lines aimed at wind and solar and geothermal areas. That would make it easier to hook up. Costs could be subsidized, or fronted and then recovered from New Energy companies as they hook up.

"The more New Energy projects we have connected to the grid across the region, the more reliable New Energy becomes.

"I'll also put more effort into figuring out how to use the federal dams - the cheapest constant source of electricity - to 'firm up' the intermittencies of wind and solar power. When wind or solar cuts out temporarily, hydropower could be used as a backup. It wouldn't be easy, because much of that hydropower is already committed to other demands, but researchers are already studying how to do it. A lot of people are pioneering thinkers on the New Energy Frontier.

"I'll also push efficiency and conservation. The Department of Energy must continue to toughen the efficiency standards for appliances, for instance. There was almost no progress on that front during the current administration until Congress passed new standards in the 2007 Energy Bill. Still, there's room for progress. More than 50 million homes still have gas-fired hot-water heaters that waste half the energy that goes into them, even though companies are already making far more efficient - and affordable - hot-water heaters.

"But as important as conservation is, it's not enough on its own. We need to develop our New Energy resources. We can't just conserve our way out of this crisis.

"New Energy will have impacts and costs. Expanding the grid will cost more than $1 million per mile. Some public land will be crossed with new lines. Wind projects can take a toll on birds and bats. Solar projects have to cover a noticeable amount of land for each megawatt. Some environmentalists will oppose almost any proposal, and some neighbors will inevitably say 'not in my backyard.'

"Critics will argue that the shift toward New Energy will mean higher electricity rates for a while. Some Old Energy jobs will disappear.

"But this frontier will also create new jobs and new income streams. A solar power plant or a field of wind turbines can provide just as many jobs for each megawatt as a smoke-spewing power plant. We'll also have new manufacturing jobs for solar and wind equipment - those kinds of manufacturers are taking root in the West as we speak. The equipment prices will drop, and the power will become even more affordable.

"Many believe, and I share the belief, that New Energy will be the cheapest energy in the future, even if we don't count the environmental benefits. And because much of the New Energy frontier lies in rural areas, including Indian reservations, where wind and solar potential is high, it will give us a chance to address poverty and stimulate neglected economies.

"We won't abandon those who make their living in Old Energy - the coal mines and gas drills will continue running far into the future. But even those companies are already branching out into New Energy, because they're energy companies and they'll take that dedication wherever it may be useful. And who knows, scientists may come up with an effective way to sequester carbon in the West's geologic formations, so Old Energy can be used in a responsible manner.

"We can work together on this. Let's help farmers and ranchers stave off subdivisions by helping them do New Energy developments. Let's take action on global warming, and reduce Western wildfires and drought. Let's slow the oil and gas rush. Let's heal the wounds in the federal agencies, by freeing them from the corruption so often found under Old Energy.

"Add New Energy projects to the farm bill, for better rural diversification. Add New Energy projects to private land conservation deals. Add New Energy projects to mining law reform, because mined land is already disturbed. Generate power with the methane vented from coal mines rather than just put it into the air.

"Together we can preserve the West's values and lead the nation and the world on a better, cleaner path. Join me, Westerners, on the new frontier.

Ray Ring is High Country News senior editor.

Note: in the print issue, this feature story is interspersed with many quotes from energy experts and policy-makers, as well as infographics of energy use and potential development.