Coal-fired politics

The governor who tried to sell safe mercury is now polishing his sales pitch for “clean coal”

Gov. Jim Gibbons was interviewed recently by Willie Albright on a call-in television program on Sierra Nevada Community Access Television. Gibbons has entered into an alliance with a coal industry lobby group.

Gov. Jim Gibbons was interviewed recently by Willie Albright on a call-in television program on Sierra Nevada Community Access Television. Gibbons has entered into an alliance with a coal industry lobby group.

Photo By David Robert

Is Gov. Jim Gibbons turning a blind eye to the issue of global warming in Nevada? His actions at the recent National Governors Association conference in Washington point in that direction.

At the conference, Gibbons did not join with five western state governors in signing a pact to limit carbon emissions. Instead, the governor ordered a task force on global warming in Nevada and opted to sign on with the NextGen Energy Council, composed of the coal and fossil fuel industries and governors from four other states in the Mountain West and South. So the same week that former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth took home an Oscar, Gibbons was signing on the dotted line with the coal industry.

“We were never invited to join the pact,” Gibbons said. (Governors from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington signed the document.)

Invitations went to states that already have aggressive emission reduction plans, said Sarah Cottrell, the energy and environmental policy advisor for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Talks began at the staff level between New Mexico and California, as well as the other states in the pact, well before Nevada’s November election, she said. However, there is room for more states to join the western pact as they implement stronger greenhouse gas emission standards, which Gibbons has not proposed.

“We are certainly open to other states joining us,” Cottrell said. “The bottom line is we needed to start somewhere, and we went with states that already had measures in place.”

That leaves Nevada out of the western state pact and searching for answers with a new energy task force.

“I think [convening a task force] says that Gov. Gibbons does not take global warming seriously,” said Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “The last thing we need is another study on global warming. When elected officials don’t want to do something, they study it.”

Plenty of study has already been done, however. Last month, 600 scientists from 40 countries acknowledged through a report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that global warming not only exists but also needs to be dealt with immediately. Jonathan Overpeck, director of the University of Arizona’s Institute for the Study of the Planet Earth, announced last month that global warming will affect the desert Southwest more than any other part of the country. And the U.S. Public Interest Research Group released a study in June that said carbon-based greenhouse gas emissions in Nevada had jumped 835 percent during the past 40 years, outpacing our population growth of 600 percent during the study’s time frame.

“There are a truckload of studies on whether global warming is occurring here and on the planet [as a whole],” said Dan Geary, a member of the Nevada Renewable Energy Task Force. “There isn’t much over the next several months that Nevada can add to the body of science on this. We don’t have years to fix this.”

In fact, Geary said he hopes Gibbons reconsiders signing with the western states emissions reduction pact. Geary said Nevada could miss out on valuable economic incentives and working with the burgeoning carbon-emissions market. Emission credits—sold by companies that exceed emission standards to companies that do not—are already part of a lucrative market between states such as California and New York, as well as internationally.

“In a very large part, the West is going to be a big part of the renewable energy picture,” Geary said.

Gibbons said he formed the task force—which he said he will not be involved in—before he left the Silver State to attend the governors’ association meeting. “The state of Nevada, of course, needs to do its part on global emissions issues,” the governor said.

Hatice Gecol, the governor’s energy and science advisor as well as the director of the state energy office, has been charged with forming the task force. However, she said her timeline is “as soon as possible.” Gecol is still in the process of recruiting between nine and 11 volunteers for the task force from all over the state, including scientists and environmental specialists. She said it’s unfortunate that people have criticized Gibbons because creating the task force shows he’s dedicated to reducing greenhouse gases.

“Our governor is proactive on this issue,” Gecol said.

But waiting for an invitation before joining the western states’ alliance is one thing. Actually climbing into bed with the fossil fuel industry is another, and for many environmentalists, it’s hard to see the silver lining of Gibbons’ decision to sign on with the NextGen Energy Council. Gibbons defends the decision as key to the “renewable resource side of the picture.” Critics contend that buddying up with the fossil fuel industry is a poor way of showing your commitment to reducing global-warming-causing carbon emissions. Traditional coal power plants, like one proposed in Northern Nevada ("Power play,” April 15, 2004), still account for more than 25 percent of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to Greenpeace. That is greater than the emissions from all the cars, buses, trucks and trains in the country, according to the organization.

While the coal industry likes to tout the idea of “clean coal” power plants, the U.S. Department of Energy’s $1 billion FutureGen plant is only in the research and development phase. Theoretically, the plant can use a gaseous system to trap fossil fuel emissions. But the technology is unproven, and there is still the question of where to store the carbon monoxide emissions, which have been shown to be a chief building block of greenhouse gases. In scientific circles, there is widespread belief that there is no such thing as “clean coal” and never will be.