Balance of power

Cities and states face off over energy plan

The City of Reno has wind generators in  locations like parks and atop City Hall.

The City of Reno has wind generators in locations like parks and atop City Hall.


Cities and states are facing off in the courts over the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sets standards for power plants and goals for states to cut their carbon pollution.

More than half the state attorneys general—Nevada’s not among them—have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt the implementation of the Plan, and thousands of municipalities are seeking friend-of-the-court status so they can file a brief in support of the program. Many of those cities, such as Salt Lake City, are in states opposing it. The National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are leading support for the Plan.

Meanwhile, Reno’s city government is going ahead and making additions and changes that are envisioned by the federal Plan.

And last week an organization called the 60-Plus Association sent a letter to Nevada’s attorney general asking him to join the opposition to the Plan.

“The EPA’s rule was finalized in October and will have far-reaching consequences on Nevadans’ pocketbooks,” said the letter to Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt. “For instance, a recent study conducted by the independent research firm National Economic Research Associates estimated that Nevada energy customers would see their electric rates increase by 19 percent annually, on average through 2032 under EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The impacts of high energy costs fall disproportionately on Nevada’s elderly residents and others on fixed incomes.”

National Economic Research Associates has done work for the coal industry in the past. 60-Plus has a history of backing issues like repeal of the federal estate tax, private Social Security accounts, and gun rights.

The Clean Power Plan, administered by the EPA, was released by President Obama at the White House in August. It represents his approach to dealing with climate change through presidential authority in a time when Congress is stalemated by procedural messes like the Senate’s silent filibuster and by ideological polarization. The Plan sets the first federal limits on power plant carbon dioxide emissions. Most Nevada power comes from natural gas, with nearly 15 percent from coal. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has been on an anti-coal tear for several years, with the result that the state has reduced its reliance on that source. Some homeowners have, until recently, been installing rooftop solar to supplement existing sources, though the advance of that technology may have been undercut by reduction of incentives.

The Clean Power Plan’s acceptance in communities has been greater both because they are on the cutting edge of climate change and because municipal politics is less polarized than state government politics.

“The city of Reno is definitely in harms’s way from climate change,” said City Councilmember David Bobzien. “There’s certainly evidence that the drought cycle that California and Reno are in right now is being exacerbated by climate change. There is a longer term risk and exposure our region has—more wildfires, more drought, air quality impact. There’s a long list of impacts the city could face.”

The president released his plan on Aug. 3. On Aug. 26, the Reno City Council adopted a resolution that said “proposals such as the Clean Power Plan, issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), may be consistent with the City’s renewable energy and climate objectives.”

It then resolved, “The City Council hereby wishes to align, where applicable and beneficial, federal and state legislative program objectives with those of the EPA and will continue to further the City’s renewable energy and climate objectives” and directed city officials and staffers to follow that policy.

It’s unclear whether this constitutes compliance with the federal Plan, or even if there is such a thing as compliance. What cities need to do under the Plan has not yet trickled down fully to the local level. “It’s not clear to me what the city compliance responsibilities are,” Bobzien said.

But Reno officials—like so many municipal officials around the country—have made it plain they are not getting in the way of the Plan as some state officials are doing.

Senior issue?

Some of the utility industry’s opposition to the Plan has come in the guise of protecting senior citizens from additional costs. In August, 60-Plus Association founder Jim Martin wrote in a Las Vegas Sun essay, “The cost of compliance for Nevada could be a 40 percent jump in wholesale electricity prices, according to a study by Energy Ventures Analysis. That’s a tough hit for any family to take, but it might be an almost impossible burden to bear for many of Nevada’s seniors scraping by on social security.”

In a dispute in the Midwest, the Energy and Policy Institute said Energy Ventures Analysis had conflicts of interest, given its role consulting for a coal technology firm.

Martin further wrote, “Fortunately, Nevada is resisting Washington’s destructive energy policies. The state Legislature is exploring ways to limit what action EPA can take to remake the state’s electricity mix. However, a better approach is for Gov. Brian Sandoval to simply refuse to orchestrate a state implementation plan for the mandate.”

It’s not certain what legislative action Martin was referencing, but in the case of Sandoval, the tea leaves have been clearer. Paul Thomson, the governor’s energy chief, told the Elko Daily Free Press last year that the state foresaw no difficulties with the federal Plan.

“My position is there’s no state better positioned to be able to comply with those standards,” Thomsen said.

As for the attorney general, in August Laxalt’s office issued a statement reading, “The AG’s office will be reviewing the rules. Consistent with our office policy, we don’t comment on future litigation plans.” Laxalt did not take advantage of the opening the 60-Plus letter gave him to elaborate.

The governor and attorney general crossed swords over an earlier federal/state snarl—endangered status for the sage hen—with Laxalt joining a suit against the feds and Sandoval saying Laxalt was not speaking for the state.

In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert is pursuing legal action against the federal plan while departing Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said in a prepared statement, “Cities are on the front line of the work to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. While there is much we can do, and are doing, at the municipal level, we need federal actions like the Clean Power Plan to help move us away from fossil fuel consumption related to energy generation.”

Bobzien said clean energy is more than just an environmental need. It’s also a form of economic development in a state with geothermal and solar advantages.

“If anything, the efforts of this city are in more than just promoting clean energy,” he said. “It’s an economic driver for Nevada.”