People with titles

“Harry Reid is an idiot.”

That’s what a White Pine County resident said to Gov. Jim Gibbons at an Ely gathering one day in 2007. U.S. Sen. Reid was then trying to kill two coal-fired power plants in White Pine and another coal plant in Clark County, near Mesquite. The Mesquite City Council did not want the plant, but the Ely City Council wanted the other two in their county, and they were furious at Reid for trying to block them. Ely Councilmember Jim Northness: “He has never cared about White Pine County.”

It wasn’t as though Ely and White Pine had not been aided by Reid. The county had been hurting since the early 1980s when a Kennecott open pit copper mine closed. The state helped the town by building a prison there and aided a proposed tourist railroad, and Reid won approval of the state’s only national park, Great Basin. But the city and county still wanted the two power plants. So did Gibbons, U.S. Rep. Jon Porter, a local tribe and many others.

The local newspaper editor wrote, “Sure, he can throw his weight around, make life miserable for the BLM or EPA if they don’t single out eastern Nevada for his prohibition. But what’s the point, if dozens of plants are allowed to be built elsewhere in the country?”

Built elsewhere? No one was lining up to build coal-fired plants, and there were non-titled locals in White Pine who supported Reid’s efforts.

Anyway, here we are 11 years later. In the ensuing years, investors—including governments—have been increasingly and steadily dumping their coal shares. Environmental leader and author Bill McKibben wrote last week, “Heavy hitters … make it clear that the first line of objection to fossil fuel divestment has long since been laid to rest: this is one big action you can take against climate change without big cost. Indeed, early divesters have made out like green-tinged bandits: since the fossil fuel sector has badly underperformed on the market over recent years, moving money into other investments has dramatically increased returns. Pity, for instance, the New York state comptroller Thomas DeNapoli—unlike his New York City counterpart, he refused to divest, and the cost has been about $17,000 per pensioner.”

Donald Trump’s strange flirtation with propping up coal has changed nothing.

Perhaps White Pine officials would have preferred the health maladies that accompany coal, dirty air in that pearl of a national park, the huge plants always on the edge of bankruptcy and always at risk of becoming empty hulks.

Perhaps the editor who lectured that Reid “represents us only in national and international matters, not in matters reserved to the authority of the state. It’s called federalism,” felt that particulate and sulfur dioxide emissions caused by burning millions of tons of coal annually would stop at the borders of Nevada and not become a national problem.

Officials and businesses wanted to tie their community’s fortunes to coal just as coal was headed straight downhill. State and local officials who think growth is the be-all and end-all should widen their horizons and treat businesses and their demands as one part of community and quality of life to be an equal part. Those who see change as progress are sometimes seeing only change.