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Ned Farquhar’s Blog

Obama's speech: What it means for the West

Ned Farquhar

Posted February 24, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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The President’s speech tonight to a joint session of Congress opens some very big doors for the West.  We don’t have to choose between door number one, door number two, and door number three.  For the first time in memory, here’s a president striking themes that matter to the West’s economic and environmental future, to our communities, and to our landscape

First – energy.  The President isn’t just committed to renewable energy, he also talks about the fast, affordable, effective option of making our energy uses and buildings more efficient.  He wants to increase renewable electricity generation quickly and connect it to our cars.  This is meaningful in a region where transportation consumes more energy than any other sector, and where transportation energy demand has been growing much faster than any other sector.  Given our bounteous supplies of wind, geothermal, and solar energy, you can see how the President is leading the West toward a true clean energy future.

Second – electricity transmission.  The President wants renewable energy to revitalize our rural regions, and allow our cities and towns to power up a renewable future.  That requires some new electric transmission infrastructure investment.   He has already secured funding to get started on it.  As advocates, we need to make sure that new transmission is sensitively sited, and constructed so that it increases renewable energy rather than opens new markets for high-emitting conventional coal generation.  We must continue to advocate for efficiency and caution in energy use; even renewable energy development and transmission have significant impacts on water, habitat, and lands in the West

Third – climate protection.  Most of this nation’s coal lies in the West, and if conventionally used it poses a latent threat to the atmosphere.  Western states derive as much as 90% of their electricity from coal generation, which has twice the climate impact of equivalent natural gas generation.  But the President is calling for quick, complete cap and trade legislation that would make conventional coal development prohibitively expensive, and a lesser choice compared to efficiency and renewables.  He calls for “clean coal” investment but (if you hear his call for cap and trade legislation and a renewable energy future) interprets that phrase very differently from industry – he includes greenhouse gas emissions.   It’s a clear signal to the coal industry that it’s time to work on specific, long-term solutions instead of continuing to battle climate protection and emissions reduction

In his recovery package the President has already secured funding for a signature issue – high-speed rail.  You can imagine a future in which major western metro areas are connected by high-speed rail, reducing the carbon emissions associated with necessary travel across some of the West’s long distances.

In Lincoln’s time, his home state of Illinois was considered western.  Not so today.  Many westerners supported President Obama’s election even though he is from Illinois and his opponent represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate – in fact a surprising number of western states either went for Obama or came close – but many also wondered if he would understand western issues and values, and support policy benefiting us.  Tonight he wasn’t specific about the West, but he certainly staked out positions that bring more balance, more sustainable energy practices, and a brighter economic and environmental future back to the West.  It’s a promise our congressional delegations, state legislatures, utilities commissions, and businesses can now pitch in to achieve.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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