Lost amid the gloomy political and economic climate of the US is Montana, a state that seems to have bucked every trend the country is experiencing. Its governor Brian Schweitzer, after spending a few minutes bragging about the intelligence of his border collie named Jag, who frequently accompanies him at work, bubbles about the health of his state. He says he does not know of a time that has been better for Montana.

The facts are in his favour. Montana’s unemployment rate has crept up from 6.7% at the start of the year to its current level of roughly 7.5%, but this remains below the nation’s unemployment level, which has stubbornly sat between 9% and 10%. With growing concerns over debt and the federal deficit, Montana is one of two states in the country to be in fiscal surplus. Not surprisingly, he is considered one of the country’s most popular governors, with approval ratings regularly in excess of 60%.

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Natural talents

Perhaps it is easier to manage an expansive and uncrowded state, but Montana’s abundant natural resources have not hurt either. The state is a major source for timber, gold, coal and other minerals. It is also a large supplier of wheat and cattle and high prices have helped the state’s economy. Numerous foreign investors such as Spain’s NaturEner and Canada’s Inter Pipeline Fund have set up shop in Montana in an effort to tap into some of this natural wealth.

And more recently there is the prospect of a massive oilfield development in the east of the state. Called the Bakken Formation, oil was first discovered there in 1951, but new drilling techniques dramatically increased the estimated size of recoverable oil to between 3 billion and 4 billion barrels.

Clean energy quest

Yet even with the discovery of oil, Mr Schweitzer is still pushing for Montana to become more reliant on clean and renewable energy sources. Having lived in both Saudi Arabia and Libya for years building irrigation systems, he can speak some Arabic and says his experiences abroad influenced him profoundly.

He says: “A few years ago we offered the Saudis a deal where they would provide us with oil and we would provide them with food and things that couldn’t grow in the desert. They looked at that deal and realised it just would make them dependent on us, so they found a way to supply food and water themselves. We should do the same with our dependency on their oil.”

As such Mr Schweitzer is eager to establish Montana as a hub for the renewable energy industry. After his election in 2004, he signed the Renewables Portfolio Standard, which will require Montana to obtain 15% of its energy needs from renewables by 2015. This is an especially ambitious target, particularly because prior to 2004 there was hardly any renewable energy in the state at all. Nevertheless Mr Schweitzer has no doubts that the levels will be reached. He would love to see the country adopt similar measures or some kind of coherent energy policy, but says that with today’s “crooked Congress” this will not happen.

One way he says this change could be brought about is through foreign investment. Though a fierce critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mr Schweitzer says he is a huge supporter of free trade and foreign investment and goes down a list of foreigners who have made investments in Montana on his watch.

He says: “We’ve got 12 out of 13 of the best business schools on the planet in the US, and I can’t figure out how it is that when we negotiate trade deals we always get second place. Maybe someone’s been paid for. So I like free trade, I just want it to be free both ways.”