"Whether you believe in global warming or not, I think it has become a political reality," said Searle, general manager of the Intermountain Power Agency.
"Investors are going to become more and more concerned about & managing your carbon emissions," Searle said. "From a PR point of view, we are doing what we can to respond."
Western energy companies are starting to talk about how to deal with human-caused climate change. Although they do not agree on actions - some support mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, others want more research into cleaner technologies - the industry is now taking the issue seriously, experts said.
"This is something I've been anticipating, but we've reached a tipping point," said Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Inc., an Eldorado Springs consulting firm that helps companies with energy efficiency, profitability and sustainability. "It's one of these 20-year overnight successes."
Recent actions show that companies are starting to make changes.
Two years ago, energy giant Exxon Mobil Corp. funded organizations to raise doubt about global warming. This month, Exxon's vice president for public affairs, Ken Cohen, told a group of bloggers that "action should be taken" to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions.
Colorado's largest electricity supplier, Xcel Energy Inc., now supports a proposal to force the company to make 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. In 2004, Xcel opposed a voter initiative mandating 10 percent from renewables by 2015. That initiative passed.
In Colorado, about 36 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from electrical production, 23 percent from transportation and about 18 percent from other fuels, according to a draft report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Denver law firm Holland and Hart LLP opened the Rocky Mountain West's first climate change law practice this month, recognizing the "rapidly emerging area of law and policy."
"The public consciousness about climate change is high, and the litigation in the U.S. is starting to pick up," said Holland and Hart attorney Jim Holtcamp, leader of the new group.
Last week, Holtcamp and his colleagues hosted a private climate change workshop for Western energy industry leaders to discuss possible future regulations and ongoing lawsuits involving climate change.
"Most people think it's going to be three years max - and I think it'll be sooner - that we'll have a nationwide mandatory program" to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, Holtcamp said.
Utah's Searle was one of about 100 people from dozens of Western companies who attended.
Intermountain Power supports federal regulations on greenhouse gases, Searle said.
"If we had uniformity throughout the country, then you really know what your requirements are," he said.
Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association who also attended the workshop, disagreed.
"Consumers have historically enjoyed relatively low-cost electricity from coal," Sanderson said. "That could change if Congress imposes some kind of mandatory system."
Mark Stutz, an Xcel Energy spokesman, said Xcel supports federal funding to develop new technologies to cut power plant emissions.
Xcel could also support some type of regulation, if that's what lawmakers decide, Stutz said.