Mining oversight board still without members one year after Sisolak said he planned to make appointments

Throughout the year, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office sends out press releases that include a long list of recent appointments to state boards, commissions and agencies. In June, the Democratic governor made 78 appointments. The month before, he made 31 appointments. 

Missing from those lists: The Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission.

The mining oversight board, set up by the Legislature in 2011 and modeled after the Gaming Commission, held its last recorded meeting in December 2015. Since then, it has struggled to maintain a quorum, and today, all seven board seats on the commission are vacant.

In February 2020, a Sisolak spokesperson told The Nevada Independent that the governor was working on making appointments, a responsibility shared with legislative leaders. But more than one year later, Sisolak has not made any new appointments to a commission that progressive members of his party have advocated for and the Legislature approved in a bipartisan vote. 

It’s unclear why Sisolak has not made appointments, but in a statement, the governor’s office appeared to attribute the slow process to the pandemic and delays from legislative leaders. 

As the board has withered with no members, lawmakers and state officials have grappled with what to do. Some have questioned whether the commission, housed under the Department of Taxation, should be dissolved or restructured. Mining watchdog groups argue that there is still a role for a broad mining oversight board that could serve as a forum to discuss issues involving the industry. 

Despite being housed in the state’s tax department, the oversight board had a broader statutory reach than a narrow focus on fiscal policy. The law gives the board the authority to probe many aspects of mining, reviewing regulations for operations, safety and environmental impacts. The commission further has the power to request audits, call witnesses and subpoena documents. 

The law also required state agencies responsible for regulating mining, including the Division of Industrial Relations and the Division of Environmental Protection, to submit reports to the board. 

But unlike the Gaming Commission, the board did not have the authority to levy penalties. And in reality, even when the commission had a quorum, it lacked the resources and staffing to do much more than take testimony and register public comment, former board members have said. 

The governor’s office did not respond to a written question about whether Sisolak supports efforts to overhaul the board’s structure. The office also did not elaborate on its timeline for appointments or whether Sisolak is concerned about having vacancies on the commission.

Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

A spokesperson for the governor, Meghin Delaney, said Sisolak plans to make appointments to the board, and she suggested that COVID-19 pandemic was partially responsible for the delay.

She said “the office was actively working to get the remainder of recommendations and confer with legislative leaders in February and early March of 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic shifted all focus of this office to address the unprecedented and historic crisis facing our state.”

Sisolak appointed more than 200 people to commissions, boards and agencies between August and December, at the height of the pandemic, according to a review of public announcements.

Questions about the board’s future come as Nevada mining companies are looking to capitalize on efforts to expand domestic mining for critical minerals, the metals necessary to build electric cars and lithium batteries, both important technologies for transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Sisolak touted Nevada’s lithium potential in his State of the State speech earlier this year, and his administration gave tax breaks to a high-profile lithium project near Winnemucca that has prompted concerns from local residents and Native American tribes in the Great Basin. 

“Policies to rapidly deploy new technologies are currently calling for increased mining in a big way,” said John Hadder, who directs Great Basin Resource Watch, a mining watchdog group that supports the oversight board. “And I think we need to be prepared for that. What kind of permitting do we want to have in place to deal with what is, in some ways, almost a gold rush?"

Even as more exploration companies eye lithium, gold remains a major player in Nevada. A political action committee affiliated with Sisolak received half a million dollars from the state’s largest mining operation, Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont.

Another factor potentially delaying the appointment process is consultation with legislative leadership. Sisolak is not the only one responsible for appointments to the mining board. The law that created the oversight board requires the governor to confer with legislative leaders.

Under the law, top legislative leaders from both political parties are required to submit a list of recommendations to the governor. The governor must then choose five members from those recommendations. The governor is allowed to select the remaining two members on his own. 

Before making a final decision, the law requires the governor to consult with legislative leaders to ensure that “not more than two of the members have a direct or indirect financial interest in the mining industry or are related by blood or marriage to a person who has such an interest.”

Trucks at mine site.
A loader and haul truck at a Northern Nevada mine in April 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Delaney said the office had received applications from 11 individuals, including one person who withdrew. The governor’s office is also waiting on legislative recommendations. The office, she said, “has received some, but not all recommendations from legislative leaders.” 

The statement from the governor’s office said that Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) sent recommendations.

Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) has also sent a recommendation to Sisolak’s office, a staffer for the Nevada Republican Senate Caucus confirmed.

Delaney said the office had not received recommendations from Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus and was working with Cannizzaro “to make sure her recommendations still stand.”

Titus, in a statement, said neither Sisolak nor his office had contacted her.

“I have not heard from the governor’s office nor the governor,” Titus said. “At my request, the [Legislative Counsel Bureau] Director is looking into it. Assembly Republicans stand ready for collaborative apolitical governance for the benefit of those who call Nevada home.”

Even if the vacancies are filled, questions remain about the board’s efficacy. Former members of the commission told The Nevada Independent last year that although there was potential for the board to provide oversight, it lacked resources and never fully lived up to its name. 

Hadder said that’s not a reason to give up on it altogether. Still, he would also like to see some big changes. For one, he said he would like the board moved out of the Department of Taxation. 

As for why no one has been appointed to the board, Hadder said it’s a valid question. 

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he added.

Mining gave half a million dollars to Sisolak-affiliated PAC shortly before session that could raise tax on industry

Sign in front of the Nevada State Capitol building

A political action committee affiliated with Gov. Steve Sisolak raised more than $830,000 in the last three months of 2020, including $500,000 from Nevada Gold Mines — a joint venture between mining giants Barrick and Newmont — and another $260,000 from the pharmaceutical lobbying group PhRMA, according to campaign finance documents filed Wednesday.

Those major contributions came just months after the Legislature had raised the prospect during a special session of expanding mining taxes to cover massive revenue losses amid shutdowns related to the pandemic — and the issue is expected to be revived during the ongoing 2021 session.

The PAC also received funding last quarter from the pro-gun regulation group Everytown for Gun Safety ($25,000), UFC parent company Zuffa ($20,000), a subsidiary of Caesar’s Entertainment ($10,000), an LLC linked to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas ($10,000) and Nevada REALTORS ($5,000). 

Though the Home Means Nevada PAC was initially founded to fund Sisolak’s transition to governor following his win in 2018, the group has since shifted its focus, doling out funds largely to the state Democratic party apparatus. 

A spokesperson for the governor’s office declined to comment, and a representative for Home Means Nevada PAC told The Nevada Independent that the governor was “not involved” with the PAC and that the group was issues-focused. 

Still, Wednesday’s filing showed the PAC contributed $390,000 in the fourth quarter, of which more than half — $250,000 — went to the state Democratic Party. An additional $100,000 was given directly to the Senate Democrats’ fundraising arm, while $10,000 contributions were made to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft (D-Las Vegas). 

The PAC also gave $10,000 — the statutory maximum in Nevada — to campaigns for Wendy Jauregui-Jackins and Kristee Watson, two Democrats who lost their bids for competitive legislative seats last year.

This is a developing story.

Update, 3/3/21 at 5:03 p.m. - This story was updated to reflect that a spokesperson for the governor's office declined to comment.

Nevada Gold Mines suspends permitting for mine expansion, plans to conduct further environmental studies

The state’s largest gold mining company asked federal land managers to temporarily suspend permitting to expand the Long Canyon Mine, a proposal that the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation and environmental groups said would dry up wetlands and endanger wildlife habitat.

In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management last month, Nevada Gold Mines asked the agency, responsible for permitting mines of federal public land, to hit pause. The company said it “intends to complete additional studies and planning to reduce the impacts of the project.”

The Long Canyon Mine is in the Pequop range between West Wendover and Wells.

To expand the Long Canyon project, Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between competitors Barrick and Newmont, has asked federal and state regulators to pump significantly more water, affecting a wetlands complex that comprises nearly 90 springs. The Johnson Springs Wetland Complex provides habitat to a range of rare species, including a rare minnow-like fish. 

“We are glad that our interventions have persuaded Nevada Gold Mines to step on the brakes and try to develop a new plan that we hope will not damage the sources of the springs,” John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said in a press release Wednesday.

In the letter to federal land managers, the company said it would continue studying the area with hydrologic modeling, conduct planning to conserve the Johnson Springs Wetland Complex. After conducting more studies, the company plans to provide the agency with an updated schedule.

Greg Walker, the executive managing director of Nevada Gold Mines, said the creation of the joint-venture between the two companies created an "opportunity to challenge assumptions and apply new perspectives to projects including evaluation against the company’s environmental and sustainability values."

"This analysis resulted in the decision to delay the permitting process to re-evaluate aspects of the project and engage in additional studies and designs to reduce the expected impacts," Walker said in an emailed statement.

Nevada Gold Mines’ decision to temporarily suspend the permitting process came about three months after the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation and several environmental groups filed protests formally opposing the company’s water applications with state regulators. 

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, said Wednesday that the springs complex is a sacred site. In his protest, Steele wrote that “it would be detrimental to the public interest to deplete or degrade” resources used for historical and ceremonial sites.

In April, after the protests were filed, Nevada Gold Mines said in a statement that it had created a mitigation plan to return water to the Goshute Valley and “sustain surface flows and habitat in the Johnson Springs Wetlands Complex.” Nevada Gold Mines said it was also working with state and federal wildlife regulators to create a habitat conservation plan for wildlife habitat.

In the statement, Nevada Gold Mines said that it “remains committed to strong environmental stewardship and responsible modern mining practices that seek to minimize and mitigate its impact on the environment, including cultural sites.”

But six environmental and public interest groups, in a consolidated protest with Nevada’s top water regulator, said the company had not demonstrated that its mitigation would be effective. 

The groups noted that rare species relied on specific habitat conditions tied to water chemistry, quality and flow. They pointed specifically to the relict dace, a minnow-like fish that the Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning to protect under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Scott Lake, a Nevada-based lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement on Wednesday that “the water that’s flowed for centuries will keep flowing, for now.”

“But,” he added, “this is only a temporary reprieve.”

Updated: This story was updated on Aug. 6, 2020 at 7:54 a.m. to include a statement from Nevada Gold Mines.

National Labor Relations Board in settlement talks with Nevada Gold Mines after agency accuses it of 'unlawful conduct'

An overhead view of Barrick's Goldstrike Mine

Nevada Gold Mines is in active settlement talks with the National Labor Relations Board after the federal agency told a federal court that the company engaged in “unlawful conduct” for failing to recognize a union and blocking employees from organizing.

In a court filing Friday, the board asked a federal judge to postpone oral arguments this week, notifying the court that “the parties have entered into active settlement discussions.”

The case revolves around how Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between mining competitors Barrick and Newmont, consolidated workforces after merging mining operations last year. 

As a new company, Nevada Gold Mines argues it was not required to recognize a union that had represented Newmont employees for more than 50 years. As a result, the union, Operating Engineers Local 3, brought charges against the company to the National Labor Relations Board. 

Given the severity of the charges, the federal agency asked a judge to force the company to recognize the union as the complaint goes through the board’s administrative process. In the Friday court filing, the board indicated that the settlement talks were aimed at resolving both the court action and the “underlying administrative board proceedings.” 

Federal agency accuses Nevada's largest mining company of 'unlawful conduct' to block union, seeks court intervention

A gold pour

Nevada Gold Mines, the state’s largest mining company, engaged in “unlawful conduct” in not recognizing a union, the National Labor Relations Board is alleging in court documents. Those actions, the board said, have “left many employees feeling terrified and betrayed.” 

A court filing by the federal agency argues that Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between international mining competitors Barrick and Newmont, discriminated against union employees and failed to negotiate in good-faith after the companies merged Northern Nevada operations. 

At issue are the actions that Nevada Gold Mines took to consolidate the Barrick and Newmont workforces under the auspices of the new company, formed in April 2019. The board alleges that Nevada Gold Mines declined to recognize a union that represented Newmont employees for more than 50 years, despite several representations that the union would remain intact.

Now the board is asking a U.S. District Court judge to grant an injunction

An injunction would force the company to recognize the union and restore an existing labor agreement, at least temporarily, pending the outcome of an ongoing administrative process. Such requests are rarely made by labor regulators, but the agency argues an injunction is necessary in this case.

In one court document, the board referred to the allegations against the company, which include interfering with union organizing, as “egregious.”

Without an injunction, lawyers argued in a brief, Nevada Gold Mines’ “illegal conduct threatens irreparable harm to national labor policy encouraging good-faith collective bargaining, the unit employees’ right to free choice, employee support for the union” and the administrative process.

The company, in its response, called the request “an extreme and draconian injunction” to force Nevada Gold Mines into a labor agreement that it never agreed to, a move that would inflict harm on employees, the company and the economy of Elko, heavily-dependent on the mines.

Lawyers for Nevada Gold Mines argue that the board overstepped its authority, offering only a snapshot of information and legal reasoning that fail to meet the standards for an injunction. 

Oral arguments are scheduled for Tuesday.

Two companies, one venture

The legal issues center around what obligations Nevada Gold Mines, as a newly-formed venture that reorganized Newmont and Barrick employees under one company, have to the Newmont union.

Representatives for Newmont and Barrick initially offered assurances that the joint-venture would not affect an existing labor agreement between Newmont and Operating Engineers Local 3, which had represented production and maintenance workers at Newmont mines for over 50 years.

The National Labor Relations Board points to a Newmont financial filing, from March 2019, that suggests that the labor agreement would remain intact once the new company took over. 

The board also cites a May 2019 letter, with Nevada Gold Mines letterhead, telling employees, in bold font: “Your compensation and benefits will not change while the labor agreements are in place unless the [joint-venture] and the union mutually agree otherwise.”

By the end of 2019, the new company had changed course, the board alleges.

The court documents assert that Nevada Gold Mines informed the union it would not recognize the existing Newmont labor agreement, set to last through March 2022, because it was a new company.

Nevada Gold Mines began informing union workers, still working for Newmont, that they must sign new offer letters to become at-will Nevada Gold Mines employees, court documents say.

Union “employees were told they must sign and return the letters or they would no longer be employed after December 23, 2019,” lawyers for the board wrote in one document.

Through that process, the independent federal agency alleged that Nevada Gold Mines then “unilaterally changed the [union] employees’ terms and conditions of employment by failing to continue in effect all terms and conditions of employment set forth in the [labor] agreement.”

The agency said this move affected a number of benefits, “including but not limited to employee wage rates, hours of work and meal periods, night shift differential, paid time off, pension plans, seniority, double time pay, time and a half pay, health care coverage,” and settling disputes.

In a court document responding to the allegations, Nevada Gold Mines vociferously disputed the agency’s fact-pattern and interpretation of what occurred in the weeks leading up to Dec. 23.

It said that the “board’s legal theories are factually and legally deficient.”

The company argues that the union had signed other documents before December, including a memorandum of understanding, that undermine the board's argument. That memo, the company says, proves that the union agreed that the joint-venture was not required to recognize the union and to waive certain rights.

Nevada Gold Mines additionally asserts that the union is no longer valid, citing several points, including the argument that it no longer represents a majority of similarly situated workers within the new company. It also questions whether the federal agency has full jurisdiction in the case.

Nevada Gold Mines notes that the union did not agree to a vote including Barrick employees.

The company further argues that Nevada Gold Mines, as a company, is new and distinct from Newmont and Barrick, countering the board’s claim that the Newmont contract should remain in effect.

In a response to an initial board complaint, Nevada Gold Mines argued that “Newmont and Barrick Gold Corporation had no role in the development of labor strategies or decisions made by [Nevada Gold Mines].” It said Nevada Gold Mines never recognized the Newmont union.

Nevada Gold Mines’ said the earlier representations that the new joint-venture would recognize the union cannot be taken to reflect the management of Nevada Gold Mines.

Despite the fact that the May 10 letter was written on Nevada Gold Mines letterhead, the company argued that the earlier statements were made by employees still working for Barrick and Newmont, separately.

Only later would they go on to work for Nevada Gold Mines.

Allegations of interference

The board’s complaint, issued earlier this year, details other issues union employees have had. That complaint, arising from union charges, will be adjudicated in an administrative process.

In one case, the labor relations board alleges that Nevada Gold Mines ordered a union employee, “with unspecified reprisals in retaliation” to report safety issues to company management rather than federal regulators with the Mine Safety Health Administration.

The company denied this allegation, as with most of the allegations in the board’s complaint. It did not specifically address this in its response, but it said in its defense that the National Labor Relations Board “lacks jurisdiction over claims related to safety issues.”

The complaint alleges that union employees, on several occasions, were asked not to display union materials. 

One worker was allegedly told by a human resources agent that “it was not a very good idea to have union stickers on their hardhat.” In another case, a union employee was allegedly asked to remove a collective-bargaining agreement that the worker had out during lunch.

In a filing with the court, the federal agency alleged that security guards “confronted” union representatives meeting in an employee parking lot in early December and “ordered them to leave the property.” They left “after local law enforcement arrived,” the court filing said.

Company actions, the complaint alleges, led to the termination of two employees because they “formed, joined and assisted the union and engaged in concerted activities.” The complaint said the terminations were also meant “to discourage employees from engaging in those activities.” 

The complaint further asserts that Nevada Gold Mines “prohibited terminated employees from obtaining future employment with other employees and contractors by banning them from all mining processing sites” operated by the company, the largest mine operator in the region.

Nevada Gold Mines, in a response, said the two employees in question were “voluntarily resigned from employment and indicated their intent to work with the union as business agents.” 

Lawyers for the National Labor Relations Board argued that Nevada Gold Mines’ actions have undermined the union and placed it in a “vulnerable position.” In one court document, they note that “employees now believe the union betrayed them by assuring them that they’d continue to have protection” under the labor agreement that was previously negotiated with Newmont.

They wrote that “the change to at-will employment and the loss of their union representation left employees feeling shocked and betrayed, creating a ‘general sense of fear’ in the workforce.”

One employee said he was “scared shitless,” the board noted, citing a sworn declaration.

Balancing the public interest

Without a court order requiring Nevada Gold Mines to recognize the union, the board believes union employees will be harmed. Because the board’s administrative process can take many months to settle, the labor agreement could become irrelevant, even before the union’s charges are decided.

Lawyers for the National Labor Relations Board told the court that, if that were to happen, Nevada Gold Mines would “succeed in its unlawful objective by the mere passage of time.”

In court briefs, the federal agency and the company have cited COVID-19.

The federal labor agency said that without a union agreement in effect, employees are working without protections, including “the right to collectively bargain to mitigate COVID-19 risks.”

Nevada Gold Mines has argued that a court order requiring it to recognize the union — and the labor agreement — would only add to the financial strains created by COVID-19. The company disclosed that most Newmont union employees have higher hourly wages under the new venture.

“The former [union] employees have just undergone a confusing and stressful employment change,” the company wrote. “However, since December 23, 2019 employees have had stable pay and benefits under NGM. Granting the injunction would financially harm most of them, at a time when COVID-19 and all of the related economic and social impacts are greatest.”

The company stressed that it would be “exceedingly difficult and expensive” to recognize a status quo in which the labor agreement went back into effect.

The company said it had paid out more than $5.6 million in paid-time-off wages and a pension fix could cost about $2.3 million. It also said employees might have to pay 66 percent back in “wage replacement benefits.”

The company suggested an injunction would mean a pay cut for employees.

“Given just the quantifiable direct effect, the direct harm to employees and [Nevada Gold Mines] is in excess of $11,800,000,” a lawyer for the company wrote.

“The Court is asked to consider the severe impact that reduced income will have on over 1,100 former [Newmont union] employees during this precarious financial time,” the company added.

But in a reply, the National Labor Relations Board pushed back. It said that the company “purposefully misleads the court regarding the alleged monetary impact on employees.”

It said a court order would put the company “under no obligation to rescind any benefit.”

The only identifiable cost to the company, the board argued, would be estimated at over $2 million, funds to contribute to the union pension system and update the payroll system. 

The company is saving about $470 million through the joint-venture, the board noted.

“Even if [Nevada Gold Mines’] $2.5 million estimate of the costs of restoring the status quo is accurate, this sum hardly seems like a hardship given the scale of savings,” the board said.

Indy Environment: A water rights protest for a mine, Lake Mead infrastructure and air quality data

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

If you are feeling like you want to get out of the house, good news: You can. But be careful. We did a Q&A last weekend with tips on what is responsible for outdoor activity during coronavirus. 

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here. As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips at  Message me for my Signal or PGP.

Here are a few stories I’m watching: 

Water rights protest: Six environmental and public interest groups filed protests to pending water right applications for Nevada Gold Mines’ planned expansion of the Long Canyon Mine between West Wendover and Wells. The groups — Great Basin Resource Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, PLAN, Wild Horse Education and the Pequop Conservancy — said in their protest that the mining company’s proposal to pump groundwater would dry out wetlands, springs and habitat for a range of wildlife species.

The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute also filed protests, Chairman Rupert Steele said.

The groups argue that the state engineer also should deny the water rights because they could damage sacred tribal sites and conflict with existing water rights or domestic wells. Although Nevada Gold Mines (the Barrick and Newmont joint-venture) proposed mitigation to replace water to a wetland complex of nearly 90 springs, the groups have argued it is inadequate rare species that only live under specific habitat conditions.

John Hadder, who leads Great Basin Resource Watch, said in a statement that “simple water replacement of springs is not environmentally sound and does not address the need to protect spring sources.” He said the company also needed to provide more information about its plan before the state considered the water rights applications.

In a statement citing the mitigation proposal, Nevada Gold Mines said that it “remains committed to strong environmental stewardship and responsible modern mining practices that seek to minimize and mitigate its impact on the environment, including cultural sites.”

The company said it “has communicated its dewatering plans to other water rights holders in the area and will incorporate monitoring for potential impacts with any associated mitigation into its mine operations, closure and post-closure.” It is also creating a habitat conservation plan with a technical working group that includes state and federal agencies. 

The water supply outlook: “half a miracle” The Natural Resources Conservation Service released its April 1 water supply outlook, with projections boosted by storms that came in late March. It all adds up to “half a miracle,” as the Reno Gazette Journal reports. 

A big Lake Mead project complete: The Southern Nevada Water Authority announced Tuesday that it completed a $650 million low-lake level pumping project at Lake Mead. The completion marks a major step for the water authority in creating more security around its supply of Colorado River water, the source of about 90 percent of Las Vegas drinking water. The project, in addition to a low-lake level intake, will give the water authority the ability to pump water under dramatic drought conditions on the Colorado River, including a scenario in which Lake Mead drops so low that water couldn’t go through Hoover Dam. We wrote about that worst-case scenario in 2018. 

Air quality in Las Vegas and the coronavirus: Clark County’s Department of Environmental and Sustainability, formerly the Department of Air Quality, reported this week that it observed a decrease in nitrogen oxide and small particulate matter (measured as PM2.5). The conclusion is based on reports from two monitoring stations.

The county data pointed to about a one-third decrease in March compared to February. The county agency also reported only one day of “Moderate” air quality, compared to 16 days in February, according to its Air Quality Index.  

The county data mirrors what has been observed in cities throughout the country, with fewer cars on the road as public health officials urge people to shelter-in-place during the pandemic.

Mine closes because of coronavirus: Nevada Copper Corp. announced on Monday that it was temporarily stopping production at its Pumpkin Hollow Mine in Lyon County for an expected six weeks because of coronavirus restrictions and general concerns about workforce health. Under the state’s business closure rules, mines, manufacturing and construction are generally allowed to continue operating, but they are required to adhere to social distancing and meeting rules. 

Ammon Bundy wants the coronavirus: And The New York Times is on it. 

Coronavirus in the season of fire: Over the weekend, we published a story about the potential coronavirus challenges facing fire chiefs and crews as they go into fire season. Some takeaways:

  • The Nevada Department of Corrections is currently not releasing minimum-security offenders at conservation camps to serve on fire crews throughout the state.
  • Firefighters already started to practice social distancing with the Clark County Wetlands Park fire last week. But with multiple, bigger fires, it will be harder to social distance.
  • The National interagency Fire Center has three teams looking at coronavirus issues.
  • Fire managers are watching another factor for fire season: precipitation.

Breaking fire: Not mentioned in the story is another development. The Department of Interior finalized a plan to construct thousands of miles of artificial fuel breaks across the West. But the plan is controversial. Fuel breaks are areas of land where vegetation is removed. Some wildfire managers argue they are useful tools for slowing the spread of blazes. But conservation groups and ecologists worry that the 11,000 miles of fuel breaks that the agency is proposing will do more harm than good by fragmenting habitat for wildlife, including the Greater sage grouse. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a story on that issue. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported on another federal project for 1,000 miles of fuel breaks in three states, including Northern Nevada.

Senator letters: Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen signed onto a letter calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support cattle producers during the coronavirus, as The Sierra Nevada Ally reports. The two Democratic senators also called on the Department of Interior to extend public comment and “suspend any new non-emergency regulations” because of the coronavirus. The Review-Journal has more.

The Columbia spotted frog: InsideClimateNews has a great story about the threat of climate change and human disturbances to the Columbia spotted frog in Utah and northeast Nevada. The article casts the frog as an ecosystem sentinel. One quote that stuck out to me: “They have a message for people about the environment—a warning about the ways humans are changing the world, altering ecosystems and accelerating climate change.” The article also lists another potential threat: the proposed Las Vegas pipeline.

No bistate sage grouse listing: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protection for the bi-state sage grouse, citing current and future conservation commitments. The population of grouse roams in eastern California and western Nevada. 

Vehicle emission rollback: In a joint-statement Friday, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Governor’s Office of Energy said the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era vehicle emission standards undermined the state’s efforts to decarbonize. The Trump administration’s rule was finalized by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation last week, and it reduces vehicle emission standards.

EPA coronavirus enforcement: In a separate statement last week from the EPA titled “What They Are Saying: Public Officials and Stakeholders Voice Support for EPA's Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic,” the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources makes a cameo. 

Brad Crowell, the director of the agency, is quoted as saying the policy “recognizes Nevada’s capabilities to carry out critical and essential regulatory and enforcement operations based on the unique needs and resources of our state.” But in an interview this week, Crowell emphasized that the state is neutral on the EPA policy.

The EPA’s policy to temporarily relax federal environmental rules for regulated companies if they cannot comply with reporting requirements because of COVID-19. The policy, when announced in March, was swiftly criticized by environmental groups. One former EPA administrator called it “an open license to pollute,” The New York Times reported.

Patrick Donnelly, state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, criticized the state’s inclusion in the press release. Crowell said the state does not have a position on the overall policy. His comment, he said, was not a statement of support for the policy but meant to recognize that Nevada retained regulatory authority under the policy. Crowell said the state is continuing to enforce environmental laws during COVID-19, while also ensuring that regulatory staff and contractors comply with coronavirus mitigation measures.

Still, Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts said the statement “seems very out of place” in the EPA's press release. He said “we can express that we’re committed to enforcing things at the state level without giving any air to the possibility that we support the federal government’s decision to move backwards.”

Indy Environment: The Colorado River, climate change and another county lands bill proposal

A view of Hoover Dam in the daytime

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter. 

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.

As always, we want to hear from our readers. Last week, we published a story on widespread concern about the Navy’s proposed expansion of its operations in and around Fallon. In case you missed it, here’s a link. And hear from a reader we did.

A reader from Hawthorne took the time to send a seven-page letter with several exhibits to sift through. The package even included a CD. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting (or could affect) you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at Message me for Signal or PGP.

Here’s what we’re watching this week:

Colorado River paper forecasts what climate change means: Last week, Science published a study that shows just how sensitive the Colorado River is to increasing temperatures. 

  • From USA Today: “Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey found that the loss of snowpack due to higher temperatures plays a major role in driving the trend of the river’s dwindling flow. They estimated that warmer temperatures were behind about half of the 16% decline in the river’s flow during the stretch of drought years from 2000-2017, a drop that has forced Western states to adopt plans to boost the Colorado’s water-starved reservoirs. Without changes in precipitation, the researchers said, for each additional 1.8 degrees of warming, the Colorado River’s average flow is likely to drop by about 9%.”
  • What it means: The Colorado River supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states and two countries, the United States and Mexico. It is already overtapped and is, in some places, facing new demands for a supply that research (like this new study) shows is projected to decrease over the long-term. Las Vegas gets about 90 percent of its water from the river with a significantly smaller allotment than other water users. Knowing this, Southern Nevada water planners have taken steps to physically secure its supply. They have also looked at augmentation, and not just the proposed groundwater pipeline. In December, we wrote about a potential Las Vegas investment in a Southern California reuse project). But across the river basin, states from Wyoming to Arizona are going to have to start taking on hard questions about water use, the environment and equity.
  • In related news, as Western coal plants close, what happens to their water? (KUNC)

A coal plant for mine operations moves toward natural gas, eyeing solar: The state’s two last coal plants sit near each other on a stretch of I-80. One is at Valmy, west of Battle Mountain. The other one is owned by Nevada Gold Mines and sits east of Battle Mountain. And it is starting to transition to natural gas. On Monday, Nevada Gold Mines announced plans to convert its TS Coal Power Plant to a dual-fuel operation, allowing the facility to generate power from natural gas. Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont, said it could lead to a potential 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions. The company, which also operates a gas plant near Reno, said it was also looking at building a 200-megawatt solar facility with battery storage. 

Nevada voters prioritize climate change, conservation, poll finds: Last week, Colorado College released its annual “Conservation in the West Survey” looking at voter opinions on conservation issues throughout the region. Here's a summary of the Nevada results.

  • Related: Sen. Jacky Rosen, who backed a net-zero by 2050 plan this month, joined the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus (thanks to a reader for pointing that out). 

Packed room to comment on the Washoe County Lands Bill: Is there draft legislation? What will it include? Who will it benefit? Who was involved in crafting the proposal? Is it necessary? These are some questions facing the renewed effort to pass a Southern Nevada-style federal lands bill to open up additional public land to development in Washoe County. At a public comment meeting last week, environmentalists, California ranchers and elected officials, including Washoe County Commissioner Jeanne Herman, raised concerns (comments are here). Different constituencies oppose the proposal for different — sometimes conflicting — reasons. But their comments often strike at larger questions about the cost of growth. Where should growth go? Sprawl? Infill? And how should the county balance quality-of-life (open, undeveloped space) with growth? This bill is heating up again, but it’s unlikely the federal delegation will move forward without consensus. We'll watch what happens in the coming weeks.

A 361-acre withdrawal and a nuclear legacy: According to the Federal Register, a public land order “withdraws 361 acres of public land from all forms of appropriation and disposition under the public lands, including the mining laws and the mineral leasing laws for a period of 20 years to assist the United States Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management to carry out its responsibilities regarding public health, safety, and national security in connection with a past underground nuclear detonation in Hot Creek Valley, Nye County, Nevada.”

About a mountain: The New York Times this week chronicled the recent politicking around Yucca Mountain, beginning with a conversation between President Donald Trump and former Sen. Dean Heller. “It was in the last year, and after Mr. Trump’s understanding of the potential proximity of nuclear waste to his property, that the president focused on ensuring that everyone in his administration got the message about where he stood,” the newspaper reported. There is also some discussion about Yucca Mountain and taking Nevada in the general election. Though Yucca is reflective of other issues (local vs. federal control, degrading Nevada’s public lands, etc...), it is probably not a major voting issue, as my editor Jon Ralston tweeted. Unless it was turned into one. But it’s hard to envision a Trump opponent taking a pro-Yucca position.

At the Las Vegas debate, climate questions and climate answers: Speaking of Jon Ralston, he moderated a presidential debate last week, and asked the candidates running for president climate-related questions, including one about public land. We did a story about their answers. 

Watching the debate, one striking thing about their answers was the amount of nuance that is involved in the conversation about climate change. There is the 30,000-foot view conversation about decarbonization and then there is the nitty-gritty technical view about transitioning away from fossil fuels. For instance, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to criticize former Vice President Joe Biden for touting the Tonopah Crescent Dunes Project, which failed to perform to its potential. But that was not what Biden was talking about. The Tonopah project relied on concentrating solar power, a different technology than Biden was talking about. In fact, Biden was touting a photovoltaic solar project. That misunderstanding on the part of Bloomberg, who has pushed renewables, shows how nuanced this debate really is. 

Jon brought more nuance to the conversation when he asked Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren how she would balance two sometimes competing priorities: decarbonization technology (solar arrays, batteries, etc…) with the increased demand for mining more lithium, copper and other minerals on public land. Warren gave a nuanced answer that The Verge wrote about. 

And Grist picked apart the significance of the question and Warren’s answer. 

Three questions for an environmental justice organizer in Washington, D.C. this week

Hoping to start featuring a short interview in the newsletter each week. This week we caught up with Manuel Ayala, the student body vice president at the College of Southern Nevada. Ayala was in Washington D.C. this week testifying at a hearing and meeting with lawmakers to lobby against the administration’s proposed rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

1/ Could you tell me about why this testimony is important to you? “The national Environmental Protection Agency gives people their right to speak [through NEPA] — the right to voice their opinion on policies that’s going to directly affect them. Honestly, just as a person, it’s concerning the fact that our administration is trying to cut that and roll it back so that corporations can have more of a say than we do on policies… and environmental impacts.”

2/ Why does it matter for Nevada in particular? “We barely have a say as it is when it comes to what’s happening in the federal government with [public land]. If we were to roll back NEPA as a policy, we as Nevadans would have even less of a say in what goes on in our own state.”

3/ Can you tell me a little bit about how environmental justice plays a role? “I currently live in the east side of Las Vegas, and that’s not the best area necessarily. I’ve lived there my whole life. I grew up there… We are more [affected] by the environment than a lot of the outside areas because we are kind of in that area with traffic and in an area with industry. If you were to create another freeway, for instance, and not take [into consideration] the aspects of pollution already surrounding the area, then you are kind of ignoring so many aspects of the people that live there.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Clips from the news:  

  • Federal officials push ahead on plan blocked by judge over sage grouse (AP)
  • BLM advances plan for 11,000 miles of fire fuel breaks over six states (RGJ)
  • Pershing County planners OK 240-megawatt solar farm, despite concerns (NNBW
  • What’s on the horizon for Nevada’s renewable energy sources (KNPR
  • Nevada receives nearly $20.6 million from EPA for clean water projects (News4)

Coming up: On March 3, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on a water case about what responsibility the state government has, as a steward of natural resources, to protect water for public use and future generations. The hearing itself is a subplot in litigation before the 9th Circuit. In 2018, the appellate court asked the Nevada Supreme Court to answer how the public trust doctrine — the responsibility the state has to preserve natural resources for public benefit — applies to existing Nevada water rights. Does the state’s public trust responsibility supersede existing water rights? And if so, how should the state go about fulfilling that responsibility? What the court rules could affect water users and environmental restoration efforts across the state. 

Many former elected officials and public employees have made their way to the marijuana industry

The interior of the Nevada Legislature

Nevada’s system of regulating marijuana was born in the halls of the Legislature. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that many who wander those halls, sit through hours of hearings to develop a regulatory structure and stay current on the latest twists and turns of cannabis law wind up involved in the industry themselves.

Records released through SB32 this spring reveal a number of former lawmakers and lobbyists on the list of owners and board members of marijuana companies. Among them are two who reached speaker, the highest post in the Assembly, but had become lobbyists by the time the Legislature authorized dispensaries.

“The experience that former elected officials, former lawmakers, former bureaucrats have with state agencies and how they operate, I think is helpful in advising and moving things forward in a way that is actually appropriate for our state,” said Democratic former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, who served in the Legislature from 1992 to 2006.

Nevada shifted from having the Department of Health and Human Services oversee dispensaries to the Department of Taxation in 2017. Understanding the differences between those two agencies was an important skill, he said.

John Oceguera, also a former speaker who left the Legislature after the 2011 session, is a board member with Las Vegas Wellness and Compassion LLC and represented 11 different cannabis companies in the 2019 legislative session. He said he thinks the company sought him out as a board member because of his knowledge in the regulatory arena and his public safety background as a firefighter.

There are also former mayors and council members whose skill sets could be helpful in navigating local government approvals. Municipalities have the power to enact moratoriums and approve local permits for individual businesses, so the fate of a business can sometimes hang on how well its leaders navigate local government politics and processes.

“You want people on your team to help you in the guidance through the rough water, and cannabis is a rough industry,” said Rebecca Gasca, a lobbyist and owner with Wendovera LLC. “So you want to rely on people who know how to get you where you want to go. They have the compass. They’re the compass holders. You’re the boat. And you trust them. And it makes sense because you haven’t been in their shoes.”

Also on the list are at least three people with intimate knowledge of marijuana regulation — one is Deonne Contine, who until February 2018 headed the Department of Taxation that oversees marijuana businesses. Although she is listed as a board member for Sierra Well, she says she was never a bonafide board member and was listed as a potential secretary while working as a private sector lawyer on Sierra Well’s unsuccessful applications for five dispensary licenses in 2018.

Reporting from the Nevada Current suggests there may have been a lapse in communication about Contine’s status that resulted in her name still being on a list that says it’s current through Aug. 1, 2019. She says that had the company won a dispensary license, it would still need to update its records and confirm bona fide board members.

Critics have questioned the propriety of Contine being involved in the industry at all because of her close ties to the regulation-development process. But Contine, who served as head of the Department of Administration in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s cabinet until her abrupt resignation last week, insists that she’s not running afoul of ethics law that calls for a “cooling-off” period for former public employees.

“No. I was working as a lawyer in the private sector and was thinking about issues that were active at the department (in any area) and if there were any conflicts related to my private sector legal work,” she said in an email to The Nevada Independent.

She added that she is no longer interested in working in the private sector and hopes to someday return to the public sector.

“I have spent much of my life dedicated to public service and ultimately realized rather quickly after working as a lawyer in the private sector for a few months that I am more suited to making sure systems and processes run smoothly and my heart is in public service and policy,” she said.

Below are some notable names in the political realm who are leaders in the cannabis industry.

Mynt dispensary in Reno

Mynt dispensary in Reno is seen on Nov. 9, 2019. Photo by Mark Hernandez.

Several former state legislators have a stake in the industry, including David Goldwater, an owner at Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary LLC. He is a former Democratic member of the Assembly and now a lobbyist.

Former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2016, is a board member at GreenMart of Nevada.

Then there’s Sandra Tiffany, an owner at GWGA LLC and a former Republican state senator who served 14 years in the Legislature. She’s a businesswoman who established a nuclear medicine image processing company and worked at a large computer-aided design and engineering firm.

One-term Republican Assembly member Scott Sibley, an owner at Nevada Holistic Medicine LLC, is a real estate broker and a reporter with Nevada Legal News, a subscription-based website that publishes news stories, public notices and other public records.

Mark James is an owner with LVMC C&P LLC and LVMC LLC. He served in the Legislature from 1992 to 2002, and on the Clark County Commission from 2003 to 2007. In 1995, James wrote Nevada's "Truth in Sentencing Law," reducing the possibility that prisoners could get early release. He also authored Nevada's "Megan's Law" to notify the community when a sex offender has been released from prison. His time as CEO of Frias cab company was marked by a contentious breach of contract lawsuit. He is now is CEO of Integrity Vehicle Solutions, which developed the Ride Genie app that allows passengers to hail cabs.

Former Assemblyman Chad Christensen, a Republican who served from 2002 to 2010 and ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010, is an owner with Fidelis Holdings. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2014 that although he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes the use of marijuana except for medicinal use, he became a supporter of medical marijuana after seeing his wife’s friend suffer from using prescription painkillers.

Josh Griffin, a former owner with Livfree Wellness LLC who has since left the industry, served as a Republican member of the Assembly in 2003 and is a lobbyist whose clients in the 2019 session included the City of Reno, City of Elko and casino companies MGM Resorts and Eldorado Resorts (casino companies are strictly prohibited from involvement in the marijuana industry). He is the son of Jeff Griffin, who served as Reno’s mayor for eight years.

High-ranking legislative leaders on the rolls include Oceguera, a former owner at Exhale Brands Nevada II LLC and current board member at Las Vegas Wellness and Compassion LLC. He is a lobbyist and the former speaker of the Assembly who ran unsuccessful bids for Congress in 2012 and 2016.

And then there is Perkins, an owner at Nevada Holistic Medicine LLC and Nevada Natural Medicines LLC and the former Speaker of the Assembly. He worked as a police officer starting in 1984 before becoming chief of police in Henderson and retiring in 2008. He is now president and chief lobbyist for The Perkins Company, a firm whose clients include Newmont Mining and the City of Henderson.

Perkins said he’s long supported medicinal marijuana after his stepson battled cancer in the early 1990s. But coming around to support recreational marijuana was a longer evolution. After conversations with narcotics officers, he has come to believe that marijuana is not a gateway drug when it’s brought out of the shadows and isn’t only available through criminal activity.

Family members of political figures include Ross Goodman, an owner with Paradise Wellness Center LLC. He is a criminal defense attorney and the son of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and former Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman has been known to abstain from marijuana-related policy discussions, such as a debate about cannabis consumption lounges in the city, because of her son’s involvement.

Mynt dispensary in Reno

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and her husband, former mayor Oscar Goodman, ride in a pink Cadillac during the annual Veterans Day parade in downtown Las Vegas on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

On the other end of the state, Catherine Cashell-Mannikko, daughter of former lieutenant governor and Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, is an owner at Livfree Wellness. She told the Reno Gazette-Journal she got into the business because medical cannabis has helped her daughters, and as an investment opportunity.

John Griffin is a former owner at Livfree Wellness LLC who said in 2014 that his father had relied on medical marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Griffin is a lobbyist whose clients include casino companies.

Lori Rogich, a Las Vegas-based attorney, is a former officer with Deep Roots Medical LLC. She is married to Sig Rogich, a Republican political consultant, the founder of prominent advertising and lobbying firm R&R Partners, and a former U.S. ambassador to his native Iceland.

In 2014, the revelation that Sig Rogich was a minority owner in a marijuana company was one of the most surprising that came out of a license application period in Clark County. Rogich was a senior White House adviser to President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1992 and also advised President Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 said marijuana “is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.”

"It was 30 years ago, a lot has changed," Sig Rogich said in 2014.

Former local government figures include Larry Scheffler, an owner at MM Development Company Inc. He is a former councilman for Henderson who founded the commercial printing company Las Vegas Color Graphics, Inc. in 1978. He also has served as a commissioner on six major commissions in Southern Nevada government. 

His business partner Robert Groesbeck, an owner at MM Development Company Inc, served as the mayor for the City of Henderson from 1993 to 1997. He has practiced law for more than 25 years. 

Mynt dispensary in Reno

The Nevada Legislature as seen on June 4, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lobbyists who have a stake in the industry include John Sande III, an owner at Nuleaf. He’s an attorney at the firm Fennemore Craig, and previously was chairman of First Independent Bank of Nevada. He played football for four years at Stanford.

Legislative observers may remember Rebecca Gasca for her past work as a lobbyist for the ACLU of Nevada. She is now CEO at the lobbying firm Pistil + Stigma, which helps businesses navigate the cannabis regulatory process, and is an owner at Wendovera LLC.

Other lobbyists include Tia Dietz, who works with government affairs firm The Griffin Company and was a registered lobbyist in 2017, and Piper Overstreet-White, who was a lobbyist for Uber in 2018. Both are board members at Livfree Wellness. 

Amy Ayoub, an officer with Deep Roots Medical LLC, is a former political fundraiser and public speaking coach.

Two lobbyists for Barrick Gold are part owners of a marijuana company. Judith “Be-Be” Adams is an owner with HSH Lyon LLC (High Sierra Holistics), as is Sean Gamble, who also lobbies for a coalition of Boys and Girls Clubs.

Serial participants on state boards round out some of the ownership. Luther Mack, an owner at Nevada Wellness Center LLC, was a longtime operator of McDonald’s and Popeyes franchises. Previously, he held positions in several state government agencies, served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission for 13 years, served as the chair of the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation and on the board of Boyd Gaming. 

He said he got into the marijuana world as a business opportunity, but also appreciated the benefits he found when using CBD cream for muscle soreness after workouts, and finds many former athletes are customers at his business.

Tisha Black, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for the Clark County Commission seat held by Justin Jones, is a board member at Clear River LLC. She is a lawyer in Las Vegas, and the founding partner at the Black & Lobello law firm. After years of involvement in the state’s medical marijuana program, developing regulations and helping companies file applications for their marijuana business licenses, she took the helm as president of the Nevada Dispensary Association in 2019. 

Former state employees who are now involved in the industry include Chad Westom, a board member at Forever Green LLC who was previously the bureau chief of the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health until October 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile. As such, he oversaw the state’s medical marijuana program before it was transferred to the Department of Taxation.

On the website for his company, Westom touts that experience to potential clients, saying “built Nevada’s first-ever marijuana regulatory structure from 2013 through 2017, and oversaw the licensing and opening of all of Nevada’s marijuana establishments.”

Lisa Vick, who works as a compliance officer and board member at Clark Natural Medicinal Solutions, notes on her LinkedIn profile that she was an auditor with the Nevada Department of Taxation until February 2018. In that job, she said she would “audit all inventory and procedures for Dispensaries, production, cultivation, and laboratories for medical and recreational marijuana in the State of Nevada.”

Jodie Snyder, Riley Snyder, Michaela Chesin, Taylor Avery, Trey Arline and Zach Murray contributed research to this project.

Panel considers benefits — and challenges — of placing solar projects on mine sites

For similar reasons that Las Vegas homebuilders look to build in the city’s outlying areas, solar developers often seek federal public land when looking for where to place large-scale projects. The land is easy to develop. It is open. It stretches on for miles. But these solar projects routinely run into roadblocks, conflicting with other uses of federal land, which belongs to all Americans. 

Recent solar and wind projects, proposed to operate on the federal land that comprises most of Nevada, have come into conflict with wildlife corridors, public access and conservation areas. That tension has split environmental groups, allies united by tackling climate change but divided over how to deploy massive amounts of clean energy without squeezing natural habitats. And it has led many organizations to ask: What if solar developers are looking in the wrong places? 

Last year, the Nature Conservancy and the Nevada Mining Association proposed and helped pass a regulatory change to make solar arrays an option for cleaning-up and closing old mines, disturbed land unburdened by the conflicts that exist on untouched federal land. The idea is to direct new solar projects to brownfield sites while giving companies another option for reclamation. Mines also have existing roads and transmission, easing some of the barriers for energy development.

“We can scale up redevelopment of mine lands,” Jaina Moan, an external affairs director for The Nature Conservancy focused on climate, said during a panel on Saturday. “Renewable energy deployment can be an alternative to reclamation, and it can also support mining operations.”

The panel, part of the mining association’s annual meeting in Stateline, dug into the proposal, focusing on what it would take to actually locate renewables on operating or closed mines. As with prioritizing infill development in cities, what is often seen as a “win-win” by land use experts faces a challenging uphill battle when it comes to permitting, financing and economics. 

A panel on renewable energy at the Nevada Mining Association’s annual convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe in South Lake Tahoe, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Although renewables have been placed on brownfields elsewhere in the country — and the world (there is solar on an old coal plant in Canada) — the idea has not fully taken hold in Nevada, though some projects have been proposed. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency looked at the Bullfrog mine near Beatty as a pilot project to test solar arrays on scarred land.  And Moan said the conservancy is exploring other opportunities. 

Although developers can potentially amplify the environmental benefits of solar by building on brownfields, they face several challenges. One is that solar contracts usually require a long-term commitment from an offtaker, often through a contract known as a power purchase agreement, for a term that can last as long as two decades. Permitting solar fields can also be a challenge because mining companies are required to outline a closure strategy before operations begin. Finally, it can be more difficult to entice solar developers to consider brownfields because the sites often require more technical expertise to build on and there are concerns about taking on additional liability. 

Moan said some of these issues can be dealt with early in the process, including in permitting. She emphasized that there were also opportunities to integrate solar into existing mining operations. Those could potentially be expanded — or scaled up — once a mine went out of operation.

“These considerations can also be made from mining companies who are in the exploration phase in thinking about their operating plans — and thinking about their reclamation and closure plans — and including renewable energy on that,” she said during the panel discussion.

John Seeliger, a regional energy manager for Nevada Gold Mines (a newly formed joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont), said renewables are taking a “higher priority” for the company. He suggested on-site renewables could also help with some transmission issues in Northern Nevada.

In part, the interest in renewables is a recognition of the economics. Energy analysts expect the cost of generation for solar to decrease in Nevada and the cost of natural gas to gradually rise through the next two decades. Although those estimates rely on a metric — the Levelized Cost of Electricity — that does not take into consideration external issues, the cost of intermittency (in the case of solar) or the cost of greenhouse gas emissions (in the case of natural gas), they provide a rough estimate for the lowest cost option for constructing new power generation. And in Nevada, that option is solar.

Mines have traditionally sourced their power from an electric utility or power plants that are able to produce electricity regardless of whether the sun is shining. (Nevada Gold Mines owns one of the state’s last two coal plants.) That's because reliability is integral to mining operations, Seeliger noted. 

“A mining process is a 24/7 operation, and we can’t afford to look at lowering [power supplies] at night because obviously our process has to continue to move forward,” he said. 

But he added that the costs and technology for battery storage technology is changing rapidly. Batteries can store excess solar energy produced during the day, which allows power users to access those electrons at night.

Part of the challenge in getting operations to adopt renewables — both for on-site use and at legacy sites — are competing interests within a company, said Ned Harvey, a managing director for industry and heavy transport at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which advocates for clean energy.

“I think the biggest problem is the barrier between corporate interests and operating interests,” he said.

Harvey explained that mining firms have a structural incentive to meet immediate performance metrics. That can make it difficult to convince companies to commit to a project perceived as new, technical or risky.

Photo courtesy of Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy.

But it’s not just about solar. Jim Faulds, who directs the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, argued that there is a potential to include geothermal in mining operations. Because of the Great Basin’s dynamic geology,  there is a significant amount of untapped geothermal, a renewable resource that taps into energy stored in hot underground water. Potential for geothermal energy often overlaps with mineral deposits, Faulds said, making it an option for  heating or renewable energy, if the economics penciled out. 

Las Vegas Rep. Dina Titus, who spoke after the panel, offered an update on federal mining legislation and said she was concerned about how the Trump administration’s trade war with China could affect the industry.

“Regardless of what the administration may think, our economy is globally linked,” she said. "Your industry does not stop at the border."

Bill raising barriers to leave NV Energy amended to avoid new costs for departed businesses

Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks’ bill setting new restrictions and limits on the ability of large businesses to leave NV Energy is moving forward, but with a major amendment stripping out sections that would affect businesses that have already left or are in the process of leaving the utility.

The amendment to SB547, which was voted out of committee in a “behind the bar” meeting Thursday, retains much of the language of the bill presented last week by Brooks that created a new process for companies to leave NV Energy while requiring companies that have already left to help pay for rate-funded programs required by the Legislature and for historic long-term renewable energy contracts entered into the utility over the previous decades.

The changes mean that large electric customers that have already filed to leave NV Energy — including MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, Barrick, Newmont, and Switch — as well as the nearly dozen or so in the process of departing the utility will not be required to pay surcharges to help fund a wide variety of programs including low-income energy assistance, net metering for rooftop solar and energy efficiency. It also removes provisions requiring those companies to pay a new rate based on the cost of long-term renewable energy contracts that the utility entered into to comply with the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Although a spokeswoman for the Nevada Resort Association said the trade organization did not have a position on the bill, the amendment is a clear benefit to many of the state’s largest casinos, which, under the new version of the bill, will not see their costs rise after departing the utility’s electric service.

The bill still contains provisions overhauling the current departure process for large businesses to leave NV Energy, including limits on when companies can leave, licensing and more regulations for companies servicing the departed businesses and setting higher requirements for businesses to leave NV Energy.