updated 4/15/2004 8:19:37 AM ET 2004-04-15T12:19:37

Western states should take the lead in renewable energy production to meet growing power demands and help establish a balanced energy policy for the nation, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.

At the opening of an energy summit organized by the Western Governors' Association, Richardson and leaders of other Rocky Mountain states and a Canadian province said there was a need to expand the production of so-called clean power, such as electricity generated by wind, solar and biomass.

"The thing that is intriguing about this conference is that it takes that notion that you're to have multiple sources of energy, that you're going to try to develop them in some orderly fashion over time so that at the end of the day you've actually addressed the problem instead of sort of responded to a near-term crisis," Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said Wednesday.

Richardson, the chairman of the governors group and a former Energy secretary during the Clinton administration, also urged Congress to approve legislation to provide for mandatory reliability standards for the electricity grid.

He warned that the nation remained vulnerable to blackouts such as an outage in August 2003 that cascaded from Michigan to New York.

"I am concerned that we're setting ourselves up for other blackouts in the summer, especially with high temperatures, high heat," Richardson said at a news conference.

"This is why it's essential that the Congress pass an energy bill with a mandatory reliability standard that prevents utilities from overloading their systems, that has mandatory fines. Right now they're voluntary. That isn't working."

Energy legislation is stalled in Congress and Richardson expressed doubt that it could be approved this year because of election-year disputes. However, he recommended that Congress move ahead with several critical provisions, such as the grid reliability and extension of a federal renewable energy tax credit, and pass those as separate measures.

The energy summit, which runs through Friday, is bringing together governors from Western states, officials from Canada and Mexico, energy industry leaders, environmentalists and scientists.

Richardson wants the gathering to serve as the starting point for the West to assume a larger role in national energy policy. He and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who are co-leaders on energy matters for the governors' association, have sent a letter to their colleagues recommending that the group work on developing more clean energy sources and increase energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, vice chairman of the WGA, said Western leaders were "united by a common vision ... that energy production and exploration can be, in fact, carried out with an environmentally sensitive ethos."

Richardson, Fruedenthal and the premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein, said coal also should be a component of future energy supplies.

"We want to concentrate on developing clean coal technology to make it environmentally friendly and acceptable," said Klein.

Wyoming has coal-bed methane production. Wells extract gas by pumping water off coal seams.

In remarks prepared for a speech to the summit's opening dinner, Richardson said the nation needed a "balanced, innovative energy policy" to end problems such as blackouts and high gasoline and natural gas prices.

"The American West _ where the wind blows and the sun shines _ has the potential to be a major part of our energy solution," Richardson said in remarks. "We could become the nation's energy storehouse _ and the economic impacts could be extraordinary."

He stressed the need to expand clean energy production. A law enacted this year in New Mexico requires that 10 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable sources by 2010. Richardson pointed out that Schwarzenegger has suggested raising California's renewable energy standard above 20 percent.

"That kind of change makes your ears perk up when you are a governor from an Intermountain state, sitting on a mother lode of wind, biomass and solar potential. There are 36 million customers in California," said Richardson.

Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and southern California are considered by many as the "Saudi Arabia of solar energy potential," Richardson said.

The West, he said, has a common interest in developing renewable and clean energy resources.

"We will bring energy dollars back into our economies by showing how reliable our clean energy sources are, and how many jobs they create, and how they protect our public lands and public health," said Richardson.

Energy demands are growing and "we can't dig and drill our way out of this situation," said Richardson. "That's a prescription for the next energy crisis, as well as the loss of economic and environmental benefits we could achieve by taking an alternative path."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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