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May 19, 2008 07:56 PM UTC

NYT MAG: Enviro Populism Threatens the GOP In the West

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  • by: davidsirota

Join the book club for David Sirota’s upcoming book, The Uprising, due out on 5/27.

As promised late last week, the New York Times magazine published an article of mine that explores a little-noticed populist uprising here in the Mountain West – one around the oil and gas drilling boom. The article touches on a region and an issue – environmentalism – that is a major part of my upcoming book, The Uprising (due out on 5/27 and available for pre-order now).

During the conservative uprising of the 1980s, Republicans exploited environmental issues and Land Politics to create a wedge between those who want the planet protected and those who are employed in the natural resource industry. Call it the spotted owl-versus-jobs wedge. Conrad Burns, for instance, was originally elected to the U.S. Senate from Montana on a right-wing populist campaign that railed on environmentalists who supposedly wanted to eliminate logging and mining jobs. But now the pendulum has swung in the other direction, with Democrats using their pro-environment positions to wedge apart a national Republican Party that has put itself in direct conflict with its local grassroots base.

Throughout the West, Democrats are starting to compete and win in oil and gas producing regions. In Western Colorado, for instance, natural gas production is booming – as are Democrats prospects. Here is a previous dispatch from the Grand Junction Sentinel:

“Ritter’s strong political showing throughout most of the Western Slope and close losses in some predominantly Republican western Colorado counties — including Mesa County and Delta County — showed how outdoorsmen can swing traditionally Republican-leaning areas toward candidates with pragmatic positions on natural resources. Ritter lost Delta County to Republican candidate Bob Beauprez by 670 votes. He lost Mesa County — the home of Beauprez’s running mate, Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland — by 1,969 votes. According to a post-election survey compiled by Colorado Conservation Voters and National Wildlife Action, hunters and anglers voted for Ritter over Beauprez by a nine percentage-point margin. The same survey showed that hunters and fishermen trusted Ritter over Beauprez on wildlife protection issues by a nearly 30 percentage-point margin.”

As I show in the New York Times article, this has a lot to do with the West’s changing economy. While the energy sector is certainly important, it is dwarfed by other sectors – many of which can be energy exploration-averse. Additionally, most Democrats out here are not “anti-energy” – they are for responsible energy development that gets the region out of what has been a destructive boom-bust cycle.

In the past, the energy industry has raced to extract as many natural resources as possible as fast as possible, hoping to cash in on a given price spike. But now, with most predicting energy prices will remain profitable, we should have the luxury of more sustained – rather than super-accelerated – development – the kind that can take into account environmental impacts.

Of course, getting out of that boom-bust, spotted owl-versus-jobs psychology is no small task, as I found out during a meeting of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission down in Trinidad. As you can see from this video, local residents along the Colorado-New Mexico border voiced their fears about government regulators crushing their livelihoods:

Whether the commission’s proposed rules would actually do that – and I personally don’t think they would – doesn’t make these fears any less real or authentic. Remember, Republicans have spent a generation stoking these psychologies, and during the energy bust of the early 1980s, a lot of these communities were devastated. And though Democrats certainly have huge opportunities to build new coalitions around environmental issues, writing off traditional working-class concerns about jobs is both politically perilous and morally repugnant.

Read the whole New York Times article here – and if you are interested in the themes from the article, go pre-order your copy of The Uprising today.

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