"This is a real opportunity for us," Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said during the closing day of the Southern Governors Association conference at the Greenbrier.
Southern states are already working individually to reduce energy use and develop better technology but need a unified voice to help shape the national debate, he said.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said more federal research dollars are needed to develop clean-coal technologies, especially if coal is going to continue to account for about half of the nation's energy use.
"Coal and nuclear are carrying the load," Manchin said. But he said they account for a disproportionately small share of research funding.
Many of the region's universities, including the University of Kentucky and Duke University in North Carolina, are eager to assist with research, officials representing both institutions told the governors.
A clear strategy is important to solving the ongoing energy crisis, Kaine said. Investors won't sink money into developing clean energy unless they feel confident the incentives will be available long term.
He said it was discouraging when federal wind power incentives were allowed to expire.
All the Southern states have developed or are working on plans to address energy and climate change, Kaine said. Many of them offer tax incentives for biofuel, wind power and environmentally conscious businesses.
Some are forging ahead with research into coal-to-liquid technologies and offering tax-free holidays for consumers who purchase energy-efficient appliances, he said.
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt said his state is using methane gas to fuel its prisons.
What's missing, Kaine said, is a unified approach for Southern states that face common economic issues and climate-change risks, such as rising sea levels, more severe storms and new threats to agriculture, forestry and tourism.
As the association's incoming chairman, he will lead the southern governors' initiative.
"We're beginning the dialogue today," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, everything's on the table."