Rural areas in America are hurting, losing people and vitality by the day. The extractive industries upon which many rural economies are based are either dying, being outsourced, or taken over by megacorporations who offer residents low-quality, unstable service jobs. What if greens had something to offer these red areas? As I keep saying, a rural future based on small-scale green industry is both substantively and politically a huge potential win for environmentalists.

A story in The Oregonian on rural Oregon’s renewable energy potential illustrates both the opportunity and challenges involved.Here’s the opportunity:

As the floor of the Pacific Ocean slides under North America, thrusting the Cascade Mountains skyward, the resulting superheated water and steam produce enough energy to provide power to more than 2 million people, most of the state.

But neither Oregon nor Washington produces a single kilowatt of electricity from the geothermal roiling.

East of the Cascades, the energy created by burning small trees culled from crowded conifer thickets or encroaching juniper stands could power an additional 280,000 homes, but only about 4 percent of that makes it to the grid.

Thousands more homes could run on power harnessed from water coursing through the irrigation ditches that bisect the high desert to feed crops every spring and summer.

All that power potential between The Dalles and Klamath Falls could make the U.S. 97 corridor something of an energy colony, exporting megawatts to population centers in the Willamette Valley and beyond.

This energy represents economic opportunity for hurting rural populations.

Local governments and industry officials hope all these projects will provide an economic boost to communities still smarting from the loss of timber jobs. In Deschutes County, for example, jobs in the industry fell from a high of 3,400 in 1989 to 1,800 in 2003.

“We’re in this region that’s still trying to get through this transition away from traditional resource-based jobs. And this is an incredible opportunity to develop high-wage, meaningful jobs,” said Scott Aycock, program administrator for the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council.

The first problem is that, at least for the moment, thanks to a grossly skewed energy market, there are substantial start-up costs associated with new energy sources. New enterprises should be offered tax incentives and, even more to the point, local and state governments should promise to purchase some of the resulting energy. Several states have passed renewable energy portfolios, pledging that a certain percentage of energy use will come from renewables. These represent important stimuli to new industries. (The idea hasn’t caught on in Oregon yet, but give it time.)

The second problem is infrastructure, or more particularly, transmission.

For instance, an addition to a wind farm near Klondike in Sherman County would require about $30 million in improvements to the grid, including a 12-mile transmission line, a BPA official said.

“We have some bottlenecks right now between the eastern part of the state and the western part of the state,” said Carel Dewinkel, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Energy.

Again, this is a matter for smart public policy. Investing in energy infrastructure is a vital and criminally overlooked responsibility of state and national government.

There are obstacles to overcome that will require a coordinated push from greens and rural citizens. A push like this would establish connections between those two heretofore mars-and-venus constituencies that would benefit both enormously.

This is what environmentalists can tell rural people: They pay lip service to your values; we value your families, your independence, your jobs. Who deserves your political support?