Oiling the campaign

Two candidates for governor use a congressional hearing to scrap over energy policy

Before a hearing on energy Saturday, U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons was interviewed by Billy Churchwell and Alyssa Chin of KRNV News.

Before a hearing on energy Saturday, U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons was interviewed by Billy Churchwell and Alyssa Chin of KRNV News.

Photo By Dennis Myers

No one can accuse Mark David of being an apathetic citizen. The Sun Valley man got up early Saturday morning, rode a bus into downtown Reno, then transferred onto the No. 3 bus to take him to northwest Reno. The bus doesn’t go all the way to the Northwest branch of the county library, so he had to walk the rest of the way up the hill from Mae Anne and Robb, just to attend a subcommittee hearing on renewable energy chaired by his U.S. Representative, Jim Gibbons.

Riding on the bus—the two rides took about 45 minutes—David chatted about his concerns. “Shell charges different prices in other countries than they do here,” he said. His cowboy hat bore Reno Rodeo and military SEAL pins. He wore a Harry Reid T-shirt under his jacket, but he’s not particularly doctrinaire. “Gibbons has helped the military forces, and I appreciate that,” he said. “I may support him.”

David reached the library before Gibbons did, and there was a group of people waiting outside for him. Democratic Party officials, environmental activists and reporters were among them, distributing material on Gibbons’ energy record to reporters. This included an imitation Master Card that described Gibbons’ campaign contributions: “Average cost of a gallon of gas in Reno: $3.129. Big Oil and Gas Money to Jim Gibbons: $67,650. Hearing Gibbons discuss renewable energy? PRICELESS.”

When Gibbons arrived, he gave reporters some time, and then he took his seat and began the hearing.

U.S. Rep. Gibbons bore a strong resemblance to Republican candidate for governor Gibbons. Democrat Dina Titus certainly thought so, which is why she showed up to testify. The Clark County senator was unwilling to surrender this supposedly nonpartisan forum to her prospective opponent (if she and Gibbons both win their party primary elections, they will face each other in November). A murmur ran though the room as she entered shortly after Gibbons banged the gavel.

The term “subcommittee hearing” suggests, well, a subcommittee. There was no such thing at the hearing. Gibbons was the only member of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources to attend. There are no quorum requirements for such hearings.

Gibbons had a prepared opening statement that was distributed to reporters.

“And I am here in Nevada today not only because Nevada is my home, but Nevada is home to some of the nation’s most vast opportunities for renewable energy in our nation. … Five western states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) for electrical power generation. Nevada and California, for example, have a phased-in 20 percent RPS requirement that must be fully implemented by 2015 and 2017 respectively. … One of the components of the RPS standard requires that the electrical power generated from the renewable energy source must be generated within the border of the respective state. … Many of my friends in Congress talk about the need to transition away from oil. However, their policies do not match their actions. They talk a lot about renewable energy production but have time and again voted against policies that would provide for greater options for renewable resource production.”

This was what environmental critics and Titus had feared—that Gibbons’ name and the word “renewable” would appear in the same sentences in news reports about this hearing so often that the public would believe he was a renewable energy supporter. They felt, on the contrary, that his last three sentences quoted here describe his voting record, not that of those he criticized.

Gibbons has often voted for legislation that encourages fossil fuels. On Aug. 2, 2001, he voted for House Resolution 4, providing $33.5 billion in tax breaks over a decade for businesses, manufacturers and consumers and the transportation, oil, gas, electric and nuclear power industries. He has voted more than once to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. On Oct. 7, 2005, he voted to encourage the construction of more oil refineries.

Gibbons has also voted for some renewable or alternative energy incentives, but usually as part of bundled omnibus energy measures. And on April 10, 2003, he voted against requiring higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles.

The hearing had generated alarm not just in the Titus and Hunt campaigns (Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, running against Gibbons in the GOP primary, had two operatives in the room) but also among environmental groups. So they had urged people to attend the hearing to ask Gibbons questions. Elyssa Rosen of Great Basin Mine Watch had sent out an e-mail message calling for attendance because Gibbons, she wrote, is “a politician with very strong ties to Big Oil, who has voted against fuel efficiency standards bills, voted for drilling in the Arctic as well as off the coast of California. I think we need to be very clear with Gibbons that Nevadans won’t accept the hypocrisy of his campaigning on renewables.”

In her testimony, Titus was not adversarial toward Gibbons, but she did say, “At the outset, I must tell you that I fundamentally disagree with the overall direction of the Energy Policy Act passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year. … [It] did not impose tougher fuel economy standards on automakers—something that is clearly needed in light of gasoline prices that now exceed $3 per gallon and are expected to keep rising. It did nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. … It did nothing to insure that MTBE in our groundwater will be cleaned up, and in fact ensured that makers of MTBE could not face product liability suits in local courts. It did nothing to require electric utilities to provide more power from renewable energy sources.”

Gibbons voted in the House on April 21, 2005 for the Energy Policy Act that Titus criticized, and also voted to adopt a second version agreed on by House and Senate conferees on July 28, 2005. On April 20, 2005, he voted against removing the liability shield from the bill.

Titus also said that Nevada is one of only two states west of the Mississippi that do not have wind-energy programs.

Various experts on alternative and renewable energy programs also testified, but Gibbons’ critics had hoped to question him during the hearing. However, he took no questions, which is the normal procedure in congressional hearings, so they were frustrated in their attempt to pin him down or get a different viewpoint before the 57-person audience and press. It was Gibbons who asked all the questions. In addition, because it was a hearing, he generally did not have to take hard-and-fast positions on energy issues since such sessions are held to gather information, not provide it.

At one point, Gibbons acknowledged that the hearing had little to do with gas prices. He said the hearing and its topic had been scheduled long before the present upsurge in gas prices, and so he was bound by the agenda. Gas prices happened to be the subject Mark David had come to discuss, but like the others, he was unable to pitch his questions at Gibbons. But he wasn’t disappointed. He said he still got something out of the hearing.

David said he learned a lot about how dependent on the federal government state agencies are in the energy field.

“Hearing all this, I see that there’s all this interchange, that what happens here can be affected by what they do back there. The state people really need a lot from them. They’re really involved with each other.”