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The greening of the West

Ronald Brownstein is The Times' national affairs columnist.

SINCE THE ARRIVAL of the white settlers, the American West has been shaped by the discovery and extraction of natural resources, beginning in the 19th century with silver and gold and then extending to timber, copper, uranium and fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal.

For decades, the industries that grew around these resources mined state capitals as thoroughly as they did the riches beneath the earth. As recently as three decades ago, the Mountain West states erupted in what was known as the “sagebrush rebellion” -- a loud and sustained clamor from the extraction industries and their political allies for the federal government to open millions of acres of public land for resource exploration and development.

But that has changed. In less than a generation, the sagebrush rebellion has given way across the West to a renewable revolution. Today, from the Rockies to the Pacific, a new political axis is emerging that could transform the national debate over energy, the environment and global warming.

“It’s a massive shift in not just policy but ... voter attitudes,” said Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico and presidential candidate.

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Across the West, governors from both parties are advancing the nation’s most ambitious policies to promote clean energy, encourage conservation and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

On each of these fronts, leaders in the West are racing far beyond the gridlocked energy debate in Washington -- and drawing support from ideologically diverse local coalitions that include new residents concerned about preserving an attractive environment and agricultural and tourism interests fearful that global warming may undermine their industries. Even major utilities across the West have enlisted.

Some critics predict that these initiatives eventually could provoke a voter backlash if they result in higher costs for energy, especially electricity. But if, on the other hand, the interlocked efforts in the West demonstrate economic, environmental and political viability, they will provide enormous momentum for faltering national efforts to build a clean-energy economy less reliant on fossil fuels.

“We’ve had really very little support from the Bush administration even to analyze this in a thoughtful way,” complained Bill Ritter, a Democrat who centered his successful gubernatorial campaign in Colorado last year on a promise of promoting alternative energy. “We really need [action] on a national basis.”

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Some states elsewhere, particularly in the Northeast, have adopted similar policies, but the push in the West is especially dramatic given the region’s historic connection to the fossil-fuel economy.

Western Democrats now control seven of the region’s 11 governorships, and their gains are both a reflection and a cause of the shift in priorities. The West’s new energy axis rests on a deepening partnership between those Democratic governors and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a centrist Republican.

In some cases, California is leveraging its market power -- as what Montana’s Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer calls the “900-pound gorilla” in the region’s energy economy -- to propel change.

California exercised that influence most effectively last fall when Schwarzenegger signed a law barring state utilities from entering long-term contracts to import electricity from power plants that emit more carbon dioxide than the cleanest natural gas facilities -- a standard that excludes conventional coal-fired plants.

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That decision already is sending ripples through the region as governors from energy-exporting states use it to build support for cleaner alternatives to conventional coal.

“We see it as an opportunity to build and construct new clean and green facilities,” said Schweitzer, who is promoting power plants that would generate electricity by converting coal into natural gas and then sequester the carbon dioxide emissions in underground facilities, such as depleted oil fields.

In other instances, California and other Western states are moving independently along parallel paths. Six of the 11 states, for example, have approved “renewable portfolio standards” that require utilities to generate a fixed percentage of electricity from renewable power sources such as wind, solar and geothermal; Oregon is on track to join them this year.

In the last few weeks, New Mexico and Colorado mandated that utilities generate 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2020 -- double the existing requirements; California last fall stiffened its rules by advancing the deadline on a 20% requirement from 2017 to 2010.

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Washington, Oregon and Arizona have committed to adopting a California regulation requiring huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles -- a standard that would essentially require improved fuel economy -- if the rule receives a federal waiver and survives a court challenge from the auto industry. New Mexico will join too if the Environmental Protection Agency and the courts approve the rule, which appears more likely after last week’s Supreme Court ruling pressuring the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

In the most dramatic example of regional coordination, California and its neighbors are pursuing a formal agreement on climate change. In February, Schwarzenegger and the Democratic governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon agreed to devise a regional plan for mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, most likely through a cap-and-trade system.

That effort, the most sweeping attempt in the U.S. so far to combat the emissions linked to global warming, germinated from discussions that began at last summer’s Western Governors’ Assn. meeting in Arizona, and blossomed after Richardson and Schwarzenegger exchanged letters in January about their state-level efforts on the problem.

The participating states have agreed to devise a market-based regulation system by fall 2008, and sources involved in the design say they hope to entice into the plan not only other Western states but the Canadian province of British Columbia.

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Nevada, Idaho and Utah, the three Mountain states with Republican governors, haven’t joined these efforts, but neither have they been completely immune to the trend.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is pursuing an ambitious conservation program. Idaho’s Public Utilities Commission in March approved an order decoupling local utility profits from the amount of electricity consumed in the state -- a pro-conservation reform already in place in California and Utah.

The political coalition for these sweeping changes begins with the influx to the rapidly growing Mountain states of new residents unattached to the traditional resource industries -- and in fact inclined to view those interests as threats to the outdoor lifestyle that in many instances prompted them to relocate.

Industries concerned about the potential economic effects of global warming -- such as farmers worried about the effects of declining snowmelt on water supplies and ski towns fearful of warmer winters -- are amplifying those voices. And many Western utility companies that initially resisted the renewable requirements now see alternative energy as popular with consumers -- and as a valuable hedge against the likelihood that Washington will mandate reduced carbon emissions after President Bush leaves office.

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Resistance to this agenda hasn’t vanished, especially in the Mountain states traditionally skeptical of government. Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative Colorado think tank, maintains that the new energy consensus across the region “could be potentially devastating for the states” that adopt it, raising energy costs and suppressing economic growth.

Even supporters who dismiss such a gloomy forecast acknowledge other impediments. Schweitzer and Ritter, while supporting national action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expressed reluctance to join the regional carbon compact for fear of ceding an economic advantage to neighboring states that don’t. Solar facilities and the clean-coal technologies that Schweitzer and other governors are promoting may take many years to develop at economically competitive costs.

But the overall shift in the region’s energy priorities appears irreversible. Production of oil and natural gas has boomed under Bush and will remain important to the West’s economy. But through the Mountain and coastal states alike, the focus of public policy and private investment is moving toward the technologies that were spotlighted at a state conference on alternative energy in Denver last month: wind farms, solar, geothermal heating, biofuels and the next-generation coal power plants that separate carbon emissions and sequester them underground.

“There is definitely a potential for a backlash,” said the University of Denver’s Richard Lamm, who served as Colorado’s Democratic governor during the raging height of the sagebrush rebellion. “But history is on the side of these governors.”

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