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Energy in a New Light

June 24, 2004

Western states long have been an energy colony for the rest of the country. Western coal fueled the power plants of the Midwest. Oil and natural gas flowed to California and to the East. Giant power plants in Utah and the Four Corners area sent electricity to California. The turbines at Hoover Dam helped win World War II and continue to keep lights burning in Southern California.

At the same time, energy exploitation has been a massive blight on the region. The magnificent Glen Canyon in Utah was sacrificed for electric power. Millions of acres of public land were displaced by open-pit mines, oil and gas rigs and pipelines. Smoke spewing from power plants continues to blur views of the Grand Canyon. Methane production has contaminated the groundwater extracted in the process. Local economies boomed but then went bust. Western governors, both Republicans and Democrats, usually worked hand in hand with federal agencies and energy developers to exploit public lands.

That history took a dramatic turn in Santa Fe, N.M., on Tuesday when the Western Governors Assn. unanimously approved a program of development and use of clean, renewable energy sources throughout the West. The goal by 2015 is 30,000 megawatts from clean sources such as solar, geothermal, wind, biomass and clean coal, The Times' Julie Cart reported. That's the equivalent of 30 giant power plants. States would boost their energy efficiency by 20%. The West would become the Saudi Arabia of renewable wind and solar power, the association said. Some governors called the program "aggressive," but experts say the technology is available and reliable.

Nearly as dramatic is that a co-sponsor of the initiative was Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, working with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and former secretary of Energy. California has long played a limited role in the Western Governors Assn., its interests considered to be at odds with those of the Rocky Mountain states. Schwarzenegger's involvement played a role in selling the plan to the other governors, allowing it to be presented as a bipartisan initiative. He did not go to Santa Fe this week but did release a statement saying that California could help lead the way to more rational energy use.

Energy diversification and conservation are not just ecologically healthy. The multi-state program is also likely to stabilize the region's economy and buffer energy users from price hikes and shortages such as those that caused California's power crisis a few years ago. Beyond that, the governors' visionary plan would seem to eliminate the Bush administration's rationale for a tired old course of exploiting more public lands in the West for dwindling supplies of hydrocarbon energy.

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