Assignment Desk: Four stories on the Western energy beat

What's the future of coal? What about water? And is that really a united front?

PROVO, UT — At a posh resort near Park City last weekend, the chief executives of seven Western states gathered for the annual Western Governors’ Association meeting. One of the top items on the agenda: energy policy, which shapes so many other issues out here. As Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead told the Deseret News, energy is “sort of the one song that brings all the Western issues to the dance floor.”

At the meeting, the association released its “10-Year Energy Vision” for the region. As The Associated Press reported, the plan “stresses cooperation among states in interstate projects such as transmission lines, increased oil production and modernization of pipeline infrastructure” as well as “calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting wildlife and supporting technologies that reduce water demand.” Some other goals included:

  • Put the United States on a path to “energy security.” The governors were cheered on about this point from speaker T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire with a wide-ranging energy portfolio, who repeated his mantra to get off the OPEC oil diet.
  • Develop a mix of renewable, non-traditional, and traditional resources. One controversial note was the announcement of plans by some states and private industry to explore smaller-scale nuclear power plants.
  • Tap into additional natural gas reserves to provide fuel for more electricity-producing power plants.

But beneath the talk of consensus and cooperation lies potential for disagreement and conflict, both between parties and between states. There are also some questions to be asked about elements of the shared vision—all of which provides opportunities for journalists. Here are a few possible angles for future coverage, leaping off some of the solid initial stories about the meeting:

Unified front?

In some smart trade press reporting, Jennifer Yachnin of EnergyWire pointed out that while the governors signed off on the same report, it will be difficult to get them on the same page. The story here is how different leaders view their state’s energy futures. Reporters can read perspectives about energy in essays from Western governors here, along with a report about the state of energy in the West.

One likely influence on any governor’s approach, of course, is his or her attachment to a broader Democratic or Republican stance on energy issues. In his introduction to the WGA report, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert touted the association’s bipartisan bona fides, writing that he hoped “Congress and the Obama administration are able to follow this example of bipartisan cooperation in order to address energy on a national scale.” But as NPR’s Alan Greenblatt recently noted, modern-day governors tend to be more partisan than their predecessors. It will be interesting to see how united this front really is.

Of course, one issue is divided along partisan lines like no other: climate change. In her story on the meeting, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Judy Fahys noted the disconnect. Wrote Fahys:

GOP governors said nothing about the links between climate change and such fossil fuels as coal and natural gas, energy sources that make their region what they dubbed “the nation’s energy breadbasket.” In contrast, Democrats, along with a Canadian premier and two officials from President Barack Obama’s administration echoed the president’s message from last week’s climate policy speech at Georgetown University: Meeting future energy needs must include cutting greenhouse-gas pollution, the emissions blamed for climate change.

The future of coal

During a recent trip to Denver, I heard journalists there mention the possible demise of the Western coal industry—prodded along by new federal standards for power plant emissions and advances in natural gas production—as an undercovered topic.

One point of disagreement among Western governors, Yachnin noted, is their stance toward this trend: whether they try to slow it down, or prod it along. Part of the differences here reflect the partisan divide, but the presence of a coal mining industry in states like Utah and Wyoming is also a factor. Wrote Yachnin:

Those differences do still exist, as demonstrated by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) in an exchange during a panel discussion on energy policy. While Mead pressed fellow panelist and Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman to explain how the Obama administration will approach coal under its new climate plan—Mead expressed disappointment that he heard only a brief, and in his view, negative mention of coal in the president’s policy speech last week—Sandoval bragged that his state is shifting away from coal-based electricity.

“I just signed a bill that retires all our coal-fired plants by 2025,’ Sandoval said, prompting laughter from the audience.

What about water?

In a recent interview with CJR, The Arizona Republic’s Shaun McKinnon said any energy plan that involves oil and gas extraction and building power plants also involves large amounts of water, as does nuclear power. My recent post about hydraulic fracturing also raised issues about how oil and gas extraction methods impact water.

Water could be a crucial factor to the success of ambitious energy plans, particularly as the leaders of Western states worry about long-term drought conditions. Coverage of any energy-plan, whether at the state level or region-wide, should be accompanied by the question, What’s the impact on water?

Back to the Beltway

There’s an interesting wrinkle to the partisan mix. Most Western governors are Republicans, but the incoming president of the WGA, Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, is a Democrat—and, increasingly, a confidant to President Obama.

A geologist before he became a Denver brew-pub entrepreneur, Hickenlooper has supported expanded oil and gas development in Colorado. And as Colorado opens a part-time office in the nation’s capitol, he has said be plans to spend more time in DC lobbying for the state and the region

Hickenlooper’s connections with the Obama administration may help the Western governors push their energy vision ahead—if, that is, they can maintain agreement on what that vision is.

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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell. Tags: ,