Cleaning up

Nevada tried in 2007-2008 to do something about its poor record on the environment

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie of Washoe County took a phone call during a lunch break at the county Democratic convention last month. Leslie plans a package of legislation to get Nevada heavily into promotion of renewable forms of energy.

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie of Washoe County took a phone call during a lunch break at the county Democratic convention last month. Leslie plans a package of legislation to get Nevada heavily into promotion of renewable forms of energy.

Photo By Dennis Myers

On Earth Day a year ago, Nevada could boast of little in its environmental record. Every state surrounding Nevada except one had stronger environmental laws (“Nevada lags,” April 19, 2007).

Since then, the picture has changed a bit, though Nevada is still no leader in the field.

Since the release of a United Nations report on climate in March 2007, attitudes on global warming have undergone a sea change. Skeptics seemed to command less credibility and more and more Nevada community groups have gotten into programs to combat greenhouse gases.

The U.N. report was released during the second month of the 2007 Nevada Legislature. A U.N. panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Paris, issued its fourth straight annual report finding global warming to be a serious problem caused by the activities of humans. The report was reviewed by scientists in 133 nations.

A first-term Washoe County assemblymember, David Bobzien, won enactment of three significant measures at the legislature:

• Assembly Bill 178 dealt with net metering, under which structures that generate their own electricity can get power credits from the utility company’s supply, and also provided incentives for wind power.

• A.B. 217 requires that the governor appoint at least one member of the state environmental commission who has experience in conservation issues.

• A.B. 296 allows farmers to lease excess water to conservation groups, agencies and others to keep water in stream, provide water to wetlands and other uses, without losing their water rights.

A.B. 178 also had ancillary language—it prohibits the sale after 2012 of light bulbs unless they produce at least 25 lumens per watt of electricity consumed. Bobzien said, “The idea is that it sets a higher standard for lumens per watt because the average incandescent light bulb expends about 90 percent of its energy on heat rather than light itself. Whether the industry will respond with just more emphasis on compact fluorescents or if they build a better incandescent light bulb, Nevada will be leading the country on the standard. Hopefully, that’ll actually have an impact on conversations that are happening at the federal level on the topic, as well.”

In the Senate, lawmakers approved legislation providing new authority to the state environmental commission to regulate mercury storage in the state, a result of the federal government’s plan to dump mercury from several dumps back east into a single facility near Hawthorne in Mineral County.

Other legislation adopted:

• S.B. 161 exempted hybrid vehicles from smog requirements for the first five years.

• S.B. 274 requires the state water engineer to accept timely protests on untimely water leasing applications (those that drag on for more than five years) and allows water rights protests to be transferred to successor projects as well as impose fines on water law violators.

• A.B. 396 stripped homeowners associations of authority to prevent residents from installing solar panels or shutters.

Gov. Jim Gibbons still faces suspicion from environmentalists.

• A.B. 115 gave the state new powers to crack down on mercury emissions in mining operations, which has become a grievance of Idaho and Utah because of suspected mercury pollution from Nevada mines.

Legislative efforts are hardly at an end. In 2009, state lawmakers will be introducing more legislation to try to bring Nevada up to code on environmental issues. Bobzien declined to discuss his plans—legislators require legislative bill drafters to keep their bill drafting requests secret until July—but Washoe Assemblymember Sheila Leslie talked about measures she plans to introduce. She wants legislation promoting renewable sources of energy but is still surveying opinion to decide how to craft legislation.

“I’m talking to Sierra Pacific, enviro groups and independent experts like [former Nevada utility consumer advocate] Tim Hay.” Leslie said. “I do believe that the energy future of Nevada, and indeed the nation, lies in renewables. I also believe that Nevada could be the national leader in this area, and I am most interested in anything the state can do to promote the industry, both from the aspect of providing clean energy and in order to promote quality economic development, especially in rural Nevada.”

Coal fired battle
It was in rural Nevada that one of the year’s roughest environmental battles broke out. Plans by small county economic development officials for three coal fired power plants ran headlong into U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who said he would do all in his considerable power to stop the plants, and green groups across the state supported him.

Reid found himself with few other allies among state or federal officials. U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley supported him, but her two House colleagues Dean Heller and Jon Porter, U.S. Sen. John Ensign, and Gov. Jim Gibbons all supported the plants. Reid at one point tried to slip an anti-plant amendment into spending legislation but the ploy failed.

Gibbons championed the coal fired power plants in eastern Nevada, often referring to “clean” coal, which is not what the those plants would use. Critics pointed out that his administration was easing the way for the plants, which would emit a combined 31 million tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year, at the same time that it was considering regulating power plant emissions.

“Clean” coal is a type of coal that scientists agree does not exist. While it might be possible to create clean coal, said University of Nevada, Reno scientist Glenn Miller, it would be extremely expensive, driving up power costs.

Environmentalists continued to regard Gibbons—whose science-hostile record in the U.S. House drew caustic criticism—as unfriendly, and his first year in office changed little, though his administration sometimes won praise.

On April 10, 2007, Gibbons created a Nevada Climate Change Advisory Committee and assigned it the job of making recommendations to him on how the state could do something about global warming. But his energy advisor, former chemistry professor Hatice Gecol, said the committee was not to assume that global warming exists. Shortly before Gecol made that comment, the U.N report was released, but Gecol said the Nevada committee needed to do its own research—"They need to look at both possibilities. They need to evaluate all the scientific data,” she said. Little was heard of the committee after that.

Somewhat more productive was a Renewable Energy Access Advisory Committee, also created by Gibbons. It produced a report in January that mapped out the best Nevada zones for various types of renewable energy generation and called for construction of state transmission lines that could interlace grids in north and south (most of the state’s geothermal springs are in the north and the best solar fields are in the south).

The report drew praise from environmentalists, though National Environmental Trust spokesperson Dan Geary of Nevada said, “I’m told that one of the original drafts of the committee’s final report contained a document that showed the state’s renewable energy capacity was sufficient to carry the state’s needs without the construction of coal-fired facilities. It wasn’t included in the final report submitted to the Governor, and I just thought that it was curious it wasn’t.”

But Geary added, “Having said that, the final report was very good and a solid first step to the blueprint for building the transmission lines we need to take full advantage of our state’s renewable energy potential.”

Gibbons still ended this “earth year” with a letter from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies director James Hansen, latest recipient of the Nevada Medal for Science. Hansen released a public letter to the governor urging him to abandon support for projects that generate greenhouse gases, including the power plants.

“I realize … that there has been a tendency for positions on energy issues to divide along party lines (for the sake of disclosure, I am an Independent), but I am confident that in making your decisions you will be guided by the considerations of the long-term prosperity of Nevada and the condition of the planet that we leave for our children and grandchildren,” Hansen wrote. “As governor, you can help inspire your state and the rest of the country to take the bold actions that are essential if we are to retain a hospitable climate and a prosperous future. If you should decide to come down firmly on the side of clean energy and energy efficiency, it could be a transformative moment for you, Nevada, and the future of coming generations.

“Youth may still seem puny, aligned against fossil interests, but it would be a mistake for industry and political leaders to sell them short. They are not fooled by ‘green’ advertisements of industry or tokenism in political actions. The leaders who put our nation on a course to carbon-free energy, allowing us to be good stewards of creation, of our planet, will find a strongly supportive public.”