More solar projects are coming. Whose responsibility is it to plan for where they go?

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

Writing today from Las Vegas, where I’ve been busy with reporting this week. There’s a lot going on across the state, from drought to extreme wildfire. 

But over the weekend, I was able to click pause and catch up with my Indy colleagues for a staff retreat. It was our first get-together since the pandemic began, and I came out of the weekend feeling fortunate to work with such talented colleagues and inspired by some of the journalism the team is planning to publish over the next few months.

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 or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

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Last week, developers of a massive Southern Nevada solar facility — what would have been Nevada’s largest to date — pulled the project amid pushback from a coalition of local residents in the Moapa Valley and conservation groups. 

The desert around Las Vegas is a prime target for large-scale renewable energy development, mainly solar (with the occasional proposal for wind turbines). That land might look vacant, but in reality, it is already being used for a variety of different purposes. And it’s mostly land managed by the federal government and mainly one agency: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

It’s habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise, an indicator species for the ecosystem. In this case, the land developers sought, set back on the Mormon Mesa area in the Moapa Valley, is used for recreation, including hiking, camping, riding horses and driving off-road vehicles. And over the past few months, the idea of putting solar on Mormon Mesa has been met with vocal opposition. 

Local residents formed a coalition, “Save our Mesa” to oppose the project, one that Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, called for fast-tracking. The art community joined in with concerns that a massive solar array could interfere with Michael Heizer’s famous 1969 land art, Double Negative. In January, the Moapa Band of Paiutes, wrote a letter to federal regulators expressing opposition, despite stating general support for solar. The tribe said the area included several significant sites. Basin and Range Watch, a conservation group, raised multiple concerns about how the solar plant would impact habitats and wildlife. The national media covered the story.

The proposed solar facility, known as the Battle Born Solar Project, would have spanned more than 9,000 acres, making it the state’s largest after the Gemini Solar Project, which will extend across about 7,000 acres and was approved by the Trump administration last year. Arevia Power, the developer behind Gemini, was also involved with the Battle Born project.

Last week, KLAS-9 reported that developers of the Battle Born project withdrew their application to develop. Kirsten Cannon, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Land Management’s Southern Nevada office, confirmed the withdrawal in an email this week. In a letter to the agency, the developer said it retained the right to refile an application in the future. 

More renewable development is coming, and developers are favoring large-scale projects on federal public land. To fight climate change, the state — and the country — have made it their policy to transition away from fossil fuels to more renewable forms of energy (and surveys show support for doing so). 

This summer, as with recent summers, we have seen Reno blanketed with smoke and Colorado River reservoirs at record low levels, highlighting the risks of a changing climate. Large wildfires, extreme heat and severe droughts already pose threats to communities, plants and wildlife. 

The question is where to put all of the renewable energy — and how to plan. I have been writing about this topic for a while now. But in the past few weeks, there has been at least some increasing momentum for laying out a plan to locate solar arrays and other renewables in areas where they conflict least with other land uses and sensitive wildlife habitat.

One of the major issues is jurisdictional. Solar, wind and geothermal projects are often located on the roughly 67 percent of Nevada’s land that the Bureau of Land Management oversees. But state and local officials are also involved in the process. And federal, state and local entities do not always see eye-to-eye. The Battle Born project is a good example. Clark County expressed concerns even as the Sisolak administration pushed to fast-track it. 

When it came to Battle Born, the federal agency said it was prioritizing solar projects with fewer impacts on other land uses. In fact, the federal agency has designated low-impact areas to push solar development. They’re known as Solar Energy Zones, or SEZs, but developers have not always rushed to build there. 

With more renewable development, some environmental groups — and other public land users — want officials to embark on a more comprehensive planning process, or at the very least, to commit to an approach that prioritized projects on lands that have already been developed and disturbed (brownfields, abandoned mine lands, rooftops, etc…). 

To that end, a few simultaneous processes are going on that are worth keeping an eye on. This month, a governor-appointed board, the State Land Use Planning Advisory Council, took up the issue and endorsed a planning concept known as “smart from the start.”

“This approach guides renewable energy development where appropriate to lands that are already impacted, close to existing transmission corridors, and away from important working lands and sensitive resources,” the board wrote in a letter to state agencies on July 9. 

That’s significant because the board includes representatives from all counties, rural and urban, with varying views on whether land should be conserved or developed and what for (houses, mining, solar, etc…). Importantly, the board also includes a representative from the Nevada Indian Commission. 

The letter notably also calls for collaboration between jurisdictions. “Cooperation between federal, state, tribal, local governments and other stakeholders is critical,” the board wrote. 

At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering an update to its guiding documents for how it plans out development on public land within Nevada. The agency creates local Resource Management Plans, or RMPs, to map out uses on public lands in 12 areas across the state. But those plans, on average, are more than 20 years old. 

The federal agency’s state office, as a result, has proposed a statewide RMP update. That’s a big deal because it would update the plans for the whole state, referred to in one agency presentation, as the “public lands version of municipal zoning.” 

Chris Rose, an agency spokesperson, said the statewide planning proposal is being reviewed by the agency’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. But according to a presentation, the proposal, if it goes through, would seek to align the plan to the Interior Department’s priorities. 

And one of those priorities reads as follows: “Identifying steps to accelerate responsible development of renewable energy on public lands and waters.”


Slide Mountain and Rifle Peak hand crews battle the Tamarack Fire in Douglas County, Nev., on Friday, July 23, 2021. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

Lake Powell fell to a record low level, KUNC’s Luke Runyon reported. “The hard lesson we’re learning about climate change is that it’s not a gradual, slow descent to a new state of affairs,” said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University. 

“Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and California Gov. Gavin Newsom stood on ashen ground as they surveyed burned homes and a mountain range of pine trees charred by the Tamarack Fire south of Gardnerville, Nevada, near Topaz Lake,” the AP’s Sam Metz wrote on Wednesday. 

My colleague Joey Lovato did an interesting and important Q&A with two experts on wildfire behavior and the conditions that we are experiencing during this fire season. And last week, Sen. Cortez Masto introduced a wildfire funding and planning bill with support from the head of the Nevada Division of Forestry and the chief of the Reno Fire Department.

Nevada is on track to adopt a version of California’s emission vehicle standards, our reporter Zach Bright writes. 

On Friday, a federal judge denied an injunction for work at the Thacker Pass lithium mine. But the ruling was somewhat limited in scope and the case remains in flux, as I explained in a story over the weekend. Because the mining company has said it does not plan to start primary construction until next year, the injunction applied only to an archaeological survey and the court has yet to weigh in on the merits of the case. Moreover, on Wednesday, the judge allowed the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe to intervene in the case. They will likely file a second request for an injunction on different grounds.

Brad Crowell, who leads the state’s natural resources department for the Sisolak administration, made some pretty notable and supportive comments about the Thacker Pass project on Nevada Newsmakers this week. Crowell, whose department oversees the regulatory divisions charged with permitting the mine, said that “all the challenges related to Thacker Pass, from my perspective, from my jurisdiction, are manageable. They just need to be managed.”

Redwood Materials, a recycling company based in Carson City and led by a former Tesla executive, announced $700 million-plus in funding. The company has partnerships with Panasonic, Envision AESC and Amazon. “With this capital, Redwood will be able to accelerate our mission to make battery materials sustainable and affordable, accomplishing the change we need in the world with a circular economy,” CEO JB Straubel said in a press release. 

A lawsuit, brought by an environmental group, continues to challenge the expansion of a ski resort in Lake Tahoe, the AP’s Scott Sonner writes. 

The Arizona Republic’s Debra Utacia Krol and Ian James wrote about proposed legislation in Congress that would allocate $6.7 billion to water infrastructure in Indigenous communities. The goal of the legislation, they wrote, is “to address a backlog of needed projects and finally bring clean drinking water to communities that have been living with scarcity and toxic contamination for generations.” 

A headline to watch from the trade publication, Solar Industry: “Major Solar Developments to Replace Coal-Fired Generation in Northern Nevada”

What to watch in the Legislature as lawmakers weigh changes to natural gas regulation, mining oversight and water law

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As I sat down to write this week’s newsletter, I checked my outline only to realize that many of the stories I’m following right now have something to do with the Legislature — in one form or another. Almost halfway through the legislative session, I decided it was time for an update. 

This week’s newsletter is going to take on a different format today. I’m going to start it with a few takeaways from the session so far. This is in no way fully comprehensive of the legislation out there, and I plan to write more on these issues over the coming weeks. If you have any thoughts on any proposed legislation or see any interesting bills, email me at daniel@thenvindy.com

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1) Legislation to regulate natural gas: The fight over how to transition away from natural gas is coming to the Legislature. The contours of the debate were drawn last year after Gov. Steve Sisolak’s administration released a state climate strategy calling for a phased transition away from using the fossil fuel in homes and businesses. Now there is proposed bill language. 

On Tuesday, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB380, legislation that requires utilities to undergo more rigorous regulatory planning and decrease building emissions by 95 percent by 2050. As former Las Vegas Sun scribe Miranda Wilson writes for E&E News, Southwest Gas and business groups plan to oppose the legislation. A similar coalition sent a letter to Sisolak last month with concerns about the climate strategy’s plans around natural gas. 

On Tuesday, several environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nevada Conservation League and the Sierra Club, put out a press release in support of the bill. 

Since October, Southwest Gas has said they planned to pursue legislation that would allow the utility to replace pipelines and infrastructure. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) introduced SB296, which would allow gas utilities to apply to utility regulators for gas infrastructure modernization plans and recover costs through a monthly rate.

2) Changing mining oversight: A few weeks before the Legislature convened on Feb. 1, the seven commissioners who oversee the Nevada Division of Minerals held a public meeting to discuss legislation that the mining industry was closely monitoring: three resolutions to raise  taxes. The commission wrote a letter saying the mining tax resolutions were not in the state’s interest, and the commissioners recommended the formation of a task force to study the issue.

The division, a non-cabinet agency, has a dual mandate. It is charged with regulating oil, gas, geothermal and lithium brine exploration. At the same time, it educates the public about mining, provides information about the industry, and advocates on policy. The division’s oversight board, comprising commissioners with backgrounds in extractive industries, advise the governor and the state on policy related to the industry. AB240 aims to separate those two functions.

The proposed legislation, which had its first hearing this week, would dissolve the Division of Minerals and fold its regulatory function into the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which oversees hardrock mine permitting. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which serves as a clearinghouse for industry, would assume the division's other roles. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) introduced the bill. At a hearing on Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Nevada Conservation League supported the measure, arguing that it would reduce the influence of the industry in crafting regulations and state policy. 

But environmental groups were split. Great Basin Resource Watch, a mining watchdog group, and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada argued against the bill because it would dissolve an oversight board that last met in 2015 and currently has no members. A Sisolak spokesperson said the governor has received applications and plans to make appointments.

The division, the Nevada Mining Association, the Nevada Mineral Exploration Coalition and the Women’s Mining Coalition argued against the bill, questioning why a change was necessary.

Another bill, AB148, introduced by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), prohibits so-called “bad actors” — corporations or executives who have defaulted on mine-cleanup obligations in the past — from obtaining a permit to engage in mining and exploration activities in Nevada. 

3) Fixing the “classic car” loophole: We’ve all seen them out on the road. The “classic car” that resembles no such thing but allows its driver to pay a lower price for registration and avoid smog testing. AB349, a bill introduced by Watts on Monday, aims to close that loophole. The bill would limit the “classic car” designation for antique cars not used for everyday transportation. 

As my colleagues wrote earlier this week, AB349 would do a number of other things related to vehicle emissions: “It would also make some changes to the regulations for people who test exhaust emissions and authorize the DMV to establish a remote sensing system for exhaust emissions in Clark and Washoe counties. It also raises the fees assessed on businesses that conduct smog tests. The bill also exempts new motor vehicles from having to undergo a smog test until their fourth year of life. Current law requires it after the second year of life.”

4) A water authority bill? The Colorado River picture is bleak. Most of the watershed, the main source of Las Vegas’ water supply, is facing extreme or exceptional drought. Consumptive use, the amount of water Las Vegas uses from the Colorado River each year, ticked up in 2020, according to a slideshow the Southern Nevada Water Authority presented to its board of local government officials last week. And the water authority has a serious message: Conservation.

It’s not a new message (see the Ryan Reaves ad), but the water authority is doubling-down on efforts to remove non-functional turf (ornamental grass in medians, next to sidewalks, etc…) in a world where incentives alone might not be enough. In testimony this month, a water authority lobbyist said the agency was potentially looking for a legislative vehicle that would require local governments and agencies to write regulations for removing non-functional turf. 

Why that was necessary became more clear at the water authority board meeting last Thursday. Turf removal programs — even when incentivized or subsidized — can run into opposition from HOAs and other entities, despite the fact that most HOA residents support “smarter landscapes” (yes, the water authority conducted a survey on it). Fixing the issue might require legislation.

5) Changes to water law: For more than two years now, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has contemplated legislation that would change the statutory qualifications for serving as the state engineer, Nevada’s top water official and administrator of the Division of Water Resources. Under the law, the position requires the person holding the position to be a licensed Professional Engineer, or a P.E. But according to the state agency, that requirement can limit the applicant pool for a job that is not exclusively focused on engineering. 

SB155, which came out of the interim Legislative Committee on Public Lands, would change the qualifications for the position. The legislation would require the state’s top water regulator to be “experienced and competent in water resource management and conservation” and to “have a demonstrated ability to administer a major public agency.” But it would exempt the official from the professional engineer requirement if a deputy in the division was a licensed engineer. 

Brad Crowell, who leads the natural resources agency, said that the proposed measure would “expand the pool of qualified applicants” to those with technical expertise in other areas of water management. At a hearing Thursday, the legislation was met with opposition from a wide range of water users and groups. A hydrologist for Kinross Gold and the Nevada Mining Association testified against the bill, as did the Great Basin Water Network. Groups raised concerns that the legislation could open up the hiring process to appointments driven by politics.

In a closing statement, Crowell said there were “more red herrings and conspiracy theories” than constructive feedback in the testimony. A spokesperson for the agency declined to provide information on what the “conspiracy theories” were and what outreach the state had done to fill recent vacancies but pointed The Nevada Independent to Crowell’s testimony.

On Monday, the Legislature introduced two additional bills on behalf of the state agency that seek to make changes to water law. AB354, described in the bill text as the Nevada Water Banking Act, allows for the creation of water banking programs. Another bill, AB356, would create a program for water conservation. Both are bills worth watching during the session.

Another bill, introduced by Peters, aims to regulate water quality pollution from indirect sources, such as chemical runoff, motor oil and fertilizers. Indirect pollution, known as nonpoint or diffuse pollution, is a leading cause of water quality issues in Nevada and the U.S. AB146 had its first hearing last week. Most of the people who testified agreed that nonpoint source pollution is a problem, but agricultural interests and municipal water users raised concerns about the bill. 

6) The Innovation Zone proposal: We’re continuing to follow the legislative effort to establish “Innovation Zones,” which would let developers with large land-holdings break off from existing counties and form new local governments. As we reported Monday, the building trades signaled their support for the plan. And Elko County, in a meeting last week, flagged several concerns


Here are a few other stories I’m watching this week:

What climate change means: One of the most informative parts of the state’s climate strategy, released last year, was a chapter that focused on what science tells us about the many ways climate change is affecting — and will continue to affect — Nevada. As someone who often researches this topic, it is valuable to have the science in one place. This week, the Nevada Climate Initiative released a fact-sheet summarizing those findings. 

Utility regulators approve NV Energy transmission line: “NV Energy's proposed Greenlink transmission line and renewable energy initiative has received approval from Nevada's utility regulators,” Matthew Seeman reports for KSNV in Las Vegas. “The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved moving forward with the plan, which aims to accelerate the development of clean energy on public lands, a spokesperson for NV Energy said Monday.”

Nye County gets a grant for environmental workforce development. (Pahrump Valley Times)

Nevada Gold Mines eyes growth: “An intensive strategic review by executive teams from Barrick Gold Corp. and Nevada Gold Mines has confirmed the enormous geological potential of the NGM properties and outlined key development projects,” the Elko Daily Free Press reports.

Seepage from the Truckee Canal: The city of Fernley is suing federal water managers over plans to line the Truckee Canal. As Scott Sonner reports for the Associated Press, “lawyers for the town a half-hour east of Reno have filed a new lawsuit accusing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation of illegally failing to consider the expected harm to its municipal water supply and hundreds of private well users who tap into the groundwater based on what they say are binding water allotments, some dating to World War II.”

Apple completes solar project in Reno: “McCarthy Building Companies recently completed construction of the Turquoise Solar Project in Washoe County, Nevada,” writes Kelly Pickerel in Solar Power World. “The 61-MWDC solar farm is located on approximately 180 acres in the Reno Technology Park — a 2,200-acre industrial park shared between Apple and Turquoise Solar, who own approximately 1,600 and 600 acres, respectively.” 

After EPA handed over mine cleanup to the state, Nevada regulators approved 'significant revisions' that cut company's responsibility

The Anaconda Copper Mine

Don Hunter is worried about the uranium in his water. 

For years, the oil company Atlantic Richfield, responsible for cleaning pollution at the nearby Anaconda Copper Mine, has paid to deliver bottled water to Hunter’s Yerington home. His well water registers about twice as much uranium as federal regulators consider safe for drinking.

“They probably should have taken care of this a long time ago,” he says.

Hunter lives about six miles away from the Anaconda Copper Mine, where mining practices through the 1960s created a contamination pathway to the local aquifer and tainted water with uranium. The same aquifer is shared by agriculture, homes and the Yerington Paiute Tribe. 

Domestic Well
The domestic well in Don Hunter's backyard in Yerington, Nev. registers at about twice the safe drinking water standard for uranium. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

On a warm June morning, Hunter can see the former mine from the yard he irrigates with his well. It’s hard for Hunter to believe the high uranium reading isn’t at all mine-related, as state officials and the company argue in modeling. He can see the mine. He drinks bottled water.

“I just know they need to do something about the water,” Hunter says.

For more than a decade, the amount of contamination thought to be associated with the mine has shrunk in the favor of Atlantic Richfield, known as ARCO, based on data from a network of over 300 monitoring wells. In 2017, the EPA accepted ARCO’s report of the mine-related pollution, showing it stopped short more than a mile from Hunter’s home, which is near the Yerington Paiute Tribe’s reservation. Still, the model found extensive contamination in the area.

The mine-related groundwater plume, it said, contained 98.8 tons of uranium and more water than Las Vegas, a city of 2.2 million, uses every year. It could take 285 years to remove the quantity of water necessary to clean up the aquifer, even if 2,500 gallons were pumped each minute, according to a rough analysis the company included in its draft report on groundwater. 

Then, the model was altered. 

In 2018, ARCO got a new regulator: The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. 

The EPA deferred its oversight responsibilities to the state as part of a deal to remove the site from the Superfund list, which enables hazardous sites to get federal funding but has a long backlog. ARCO negotiated the deal with state regulators, who presented it to the EPA. 

In May, state regulators approved a revised report holding the mine responsible for less than half of the potential contamination previously modeled, a conclusion far more favorable for ARCO. In the long term, it could mean a less extensive and less expensive aquifer cleanup.

Soon after the state division took over, ARCO started presenting new science. ARCO began mounting a case, based in part on a new analysis the company conducted, that significantly reduced the pollution zone that had been vetted by EPA’s technical experts and had undergone three revisions, according to public documents reviewed by The Nevada Independent. 

By 2019, the company submitted a new model and new report. State regulators bought in.

The Yerington Paiute Tribe, in written comments on the documents, called the revisions in the new model a “dramatic change.” The tribe, a sovereign nation, said that the state regulatory agency, known as NDEP, “failed to notify” tribal officials that it had permitted ARCO to submit a new technical report that would be relied on as evidence for the more favorable model.  

In an interview, NDEP Director Greg Lovato downplayed the scope of the revisions, describing them as part of a “scientific progression and refinements based on additional information.”

NDEP insists ARCO’s new model went through a rigorous review.

But when asked, the agency was not able to provide basic information about the volume and mass of contaminants in the newly-defined contamination zone it approved last month.

State officials acknowledged they did not request that information from ARCO. 

A sign outside of the pit lake created by activities at the Anaconda Copper Mine near Yerington, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘Closely monitor the cleanup’

For decades, cleanup at the site was stalled by mistrust and oversight concerns.

State officials were slow to respond to the groundwater contamination in the early 2000s, and got involved in a dispute with a federal land manager who later won a whistleblower settlement

At the time, Sen. Harry Reid, then the Senate majority whip, criticized NDEP and said the EPA should take control. Reid described the dynamic as “big business overwhelming a little state, and the state doesn’t have the power to fight them,” the Associated Press reported in 2004.

It was not until 2016, under former Gov. Brian Sandoval, that the state reluctantly agreed to a federal Superfund listing. Then in February 2018, Sandoval’s administration reversed course. 

ARCO said it would be willing to take on liability for an abandoned portion of the mine if the EPA stepped aside. It meant ARCO would have to pay $30 to $40 million for the first cleanup phase. 

It also meant the EPA would defer oversight of the cleanup to NDEP.

Critics of the “deferral” worried that NDEP would let ARCO off the hook and sideline comments from two tribes and citizen groups. They pointed out that EPA is a much larger agency with expertise around the country. And the deal, on its face, raised questions about ARCO’s motives: What financial sense did it make for a profit-driven company to add millions more to its costs? 

An ARCO spokesperson told The Nevada Independent last year that it preferred NDEP manage the site because it was closer, had experience with Nevada mines and was “able to develop a more fit for purpose and efficient remedy decision” to help the project to “proceed more quickly.”

Lovato was aware of ARCO’s motives to cut costs and speed up the process.

“I am not going to deny that they’re looking to save money,” he said in an interview last year. “They’re going to be testing us, and we’re going to be pushing them at every corner of this.”

The tainted groundwater is one of the most important and potentially most costly aspects of the cleanup. The EPA, pushing for a Superfund listing in 2015, wrote that “the groundwater beneath the site and extending to the north and west of the Site already contains levels of arsenic, uranium, and other heavy metals above state and federal drinking water standards.”

In a document, the EPA noted that while modeling is not a “exact science,” “consultants to [ARCO] produced documentation showing that mine impacted groundwater has traveled more than halfway from the Site property toward the Yerington Paiute Tribe Reservation.”

The EPA stressed the importance of “a comprehensive remedy” to “alleviate the impacts to the Yerington Paiute Tribe, particularly as increased contaminant concentrations may challenge the Yerington Paiute Tribe treatment system,” on local residents and on agriculture in the future.

When the EPA deferred oversight to the state, several provisions focused on groundwater.

As part of the deferral agreement in February 2018, Lovato signed an order that outlined the cleanup process. A “Statement of Work,” included with that order, that the groundwater report — and model — must be “submitted or completed” 90 days after the agreement went into effect.

The completed report arrived two years later — showing far less mine pollution.

NDEP did not respond to questions about whether the Statement of Work was modified.

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has continued to support the agreement.

Last September, Sisolak said that he believed “deferral is the most effective pathway to quickly clean up the mine site to the highest standards under all state and federal requirements.”

But Sisolak also wanted accountability. He said his administration would “continue to closely monitor the cleanup efforts to ensure that the NDEP continues holding the Atlantic Richfield Company accountable to the high standards and costs necessary for cleaning up the site.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt welcome audience members to stand with them as they sign a deferral agreement Feb. 5 to keep the Anaconda Copper Mine off the Superfund National Priorities List.

State officials have said that the scope of the cleanup would be the same as it would be under the EPA. Brad Crowell, whose Department of Conservation and Natural Resources oversees NDEP, said in an interview last September that the cleanup would match EPA’s requirements.

“One important distinction is that even if this were being done under the Superfund program, the scope wouldn't be any different than what NDEP is currently doing for scope,” Crowell said.

Addressing the company’s revised groundwater model, Crowell said NDEP’s role was to provide “independent expertise” in determining the scope of the contamination. He noted the dynamic — that the company probably had a more limited view, while residents had a more expansive one. 

“NDEP is helping provide some independent expertise from their jurisdiction on what exactly are the mine-impacted waters...where are they, and how are they moving or not moving,” he said.

Monitoring wells test for contaminants near the former Anaconda Copper Mine.
Monitoring wells test for contaminants near the former Anaconda Copper Mine. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘Process manipulation’

But the EPA had already studied that same question for more than a decade.

All groundwater models contain a zone of uncertainty. It is difficult to map what is invisible. In the area around the mine, the complex geologic conditions make modeling especially challenging. 

Tracing the main contaminants, uranium and sulfate, to a specific source is even harder.

As early as 2012, the EPA recognized this. Acknowledging that naturally-occurring minerals and agricultural practices likely contributed to the contamination, the EPA allowed ARCO to depart from a conventional method for assessing contamination and rely on multiple lines of evidence.

The EPA also directed the company to err on the side of caution. 

In 2016, the EPA ordered the company to take a conservative approach in its determination of how much and how far mine-related contamination had traveled through water beneath the site. In this context, a conservative approach is one encompassing more potential pollution, not less.

When the model was published in an October 2017 draft report, it had already been negotiated in three revisions. In certain areas, the EPA had even reduced the extent of the plume boundary.

Although ARCO said “refinements” could be warranted to more accurately assess the other sources of contamination, the company appeared ready to proceed with the EPA-accepted model.

An executive summary of ARCO’s draft report described the information within the document as being “sufficient to characterize the groundwater system, define the nature of mine-related groundwater contamination, perform a risk assessment, and conduct a feasibility study.” 

At the site, different areas are split into "operable units." OU-1 refers to the operable unit for groundwater.

That sentiment was echoed in the deferral agreement NDEP signed with ARCO in February 2018, when it assumed the lead responsibilities of the cleanup from the federal government. 

The Statement of Work, included in the signed agreement, said that “the extensive amount of existing groundwater information is considered adequate to complete the [groundwater report].” The agreement said the report would “essentially consist of the content already developed.”

But with the signatures barely dry, NDEP and ARCO seemingly reversed course. 

For the next two years, NDEP allowed the company to develop more favorable modeling. NDEP confirmed it approved the drafting of a technical memo not mentioned in the Statement of Work.

The Yerington Paiute Tribe, in comments on one document, said NDEP “failed to notify” anyone of what the tribe referred to as a “process manipulation” that lacked a robust oversight process.  

At the site, areas are split into "operable units." OU-1 refers to the groundwater.

“The entire effort appears to be outside the more practical processes found to be effective for this type of analysis and lacking in both peer review and planning,” the comment said. 

There were other process concerns, too.

The tribe said NDEP failed to hold regular technical meetings, as the EPA had done. Those meetings allow parties involved in a project to discuss what should be included in the modeling.  

NDEP provided The Nevada Independent with comments from the Yerington Paiute Tribe and the Bureau of Land Management, which are public records. The tribe declined an interview. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe, which is involved in the cleanup and shares a watershed with the Yerington Paiute Tribe, voiced worries about the process in an interview earlier this month.  

"They are not respecting our decisions as a sovereign nation and the expertise we want at the table," Chairman Amber Torres said. “To me, it hasn’t been a smooth, working relationship.”

A separate letter from NDEP suggests that the state agency exercised tight control over the flow of information in the formal comment process for the revised groundwater modeling.  

The letter, which was sent to the tribe in July 2019, said it offered guidelines “to provide some criteria and set some expectations for future comments from the tribe.” NDEP, the letter said, would filter all comments and only send ARCO the comments it determined to be relevant.

The “comment process is not left to a vote,” the guidelines said.

NDEP said it would not accept comments “written as a perspective” or not relevant to a specific document. According to the letter, similar notices were sent to other parties involved at the site. 

Bottled water in front of the Yerington Paiute Tribe's community center on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Significant revisions’

When NDEP approved the final report in May, it looked very different from the original draft.

These were not minor refinements. There were new authors on the report. ARCO had hired a new consulting firm, Copper Environmental Consulting. The final version of the report included a footnote on the credit page, noting that “significant revisions” had been made from the draft. 

An ARCO spokesperson said it “periodically opens up portfolios of work to competitive bidding.”

ARCO, with the state’s eventual approval, introduced new information, including an unexpected geothermal report, that led to a model more favorable than the prior EPA-accepted analysis.  

NDEP insists that the changes were consistent with the plan and the deferral agreement.

In an emailed response to questions, NDEP said the draft report containing the original model “wasn't considered sufficient,” even though ARCO’s draft report acknowledged it as “sufficient.”

The grey boundary outlines the 2017 EPA-accepted groundwater pollution zone. The area shaded in purple shows the revised pollution zone. Red marks show wells with an increasing uranium trend. (Final Groundwater Investigation)

The EPA had provided “substantial comments” on the draft, NDEP argues, and it was awaiting a plume stability memo from the company. The agency further contends that the EPA-accepted model did not fully capture where mine contamination ended and other contamination started.

A spokesperson for the EPA said the agency did not request further groundwater study at the time of the deferral agreement.

When asked if NDEP was following the conservative standard the EPA used while overseeing the mine cleanup, the agency said that state regulators “relied on the best available science.”

NDEP, in the emailed statement, said that “the data dictates how conservative the conclusions can be with respect to the extent of mine-impacted groundwater that is commingled with other sources of contaminants from agricultural practices and natural geochemistry.” 

Lovato also defended the new model during a phone interview in May.

He said the changes should be viewed as a “scientific progression and refinements based on additional information” and “consistent with the previously approved EPA delineation as a zone.” 

Lovato said the EPA model was conservative and represented a maximum “outside estimate” of the pollution. In the phone interview, Jeff Collins, chief of NDEP’s Bureau of Corrective Actions, said “the door was left open by EPA to evaluate other potential contributors to groundwater.” 

To support their case that “the door was left open by EPA,” Collins and Lovato repeatedly cited language in the 2017 draft report. The language said “further refinements” could be necessary “to fully account for naturally occurring chemical concentrations in study area groundwater.”

At the site, different areas are split into "operable units." OU-1 refers to the operable unit for groundwater.

But last year, during an interview, NDEP did not disclose that ARCO had proposed changes to the conservative plume boundary that had been revised three times and accepted by the EPA.

In fact, both Lovato and Collins noted EPA’s approval of the previously-accepted model. 

“This whole plume boundary was approved by EPA and their experts along with NDEP back in, like I said, in 2017,” he said, sitting alongside Lovato in August 2019. “So it’s been understood for a couple of years now. We’re just putting the final touches on the investigation report.”

Public letters and documents produced by NDEP show that the regulatory agency, at the time, was fully aware of the significant scope of the revisions they were starting to approve.

Written statements NDEP made months prior to that interview suggest the revisions were far more sweeping than “refinements” or the “final touches” of an ongoing groundwater study.

In May 2019, NDEP sent ARCO a compilation of comments from the groups involved with the cleanup. In that document, NDEP described the new model as containing “significant changes.”

In an April 2019 letter from NDEP to ARCO, NDEP referred to “significant changes” in the modeling, saying “it is essential for readers to have an opportunity to evaluate the changes.”

Others took notice.

Commenting on a revision of that report in November 2019, the Yerington Paiute Tribe noted the “dramatic change in hydrologic conceptual model proposed” following the change in oversight. 

The regulator and the company, the tribe said, “have failed to meet the request by the Tribe for technical meetings needed to manage the dramatic change in hydrologic conceptual model proposed since the introduction” of two company-commissioned reports after the deferral. 

A car drives through a residential neighborhood that shares an aquifer with the former Anaconda Copper Mine near Yerington, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

New regulator, new science, new result

As the state took the reins of the cleanup, ARCO was preparing a case that naturally-occurring mineralization was far more prevalent in the area and responsible for much of the pollution. 

In early 2018, ARCO consultants began hinting at this change in documents filed with the state.

The company submitted a draft of what is known as the Plume Stability Technical Memo in May 2018. The purpose of the document was to evaluate the movement of the plume — to be used for a future report. Still, the executive summary cast doubt on existing groundwater modeling.

It said the conservative plume boundary, as acknowledged by the EPA, “did not fully account for natural inputs or agricultural activities” and was best seen as a zone, not as a firm boundary. 

In October 2018, ARCO filed another document. It was called the Geothermal Technical Memo. 

The lengthy study came as a surprise to the tribe. 

It was not included in the Statement of Work nor was it included on a list of documents intended to inform the final report. But the memo was not a surprise to NDEP, which approved its drafting.

In an email, NDEP stated that “it did not come as a surprise because, as stated previously to this reporter, [an earlier modeling report] as approved by EPA left the door open for more investigation of natural geochemistry that could be contributing to the groundwater impacts.”  

The memo presented evidence of a geothermal system in the polluted area, and argued that it had “a marked influence on groundwater quality,” casting doubt on how much uranium pollution was related to the mine or was naturally occurring, spread around by agricultural practices.

The tribe, in its comments, called the new technical memo “suspect.”

The memo was used to create the new model.

The company said the volume of the total mine-related plume was now about 180,000 acre-feet, or less than half the size of the plume modeled in 2017. Moreover, it showed the contamination largely contained to the mine site, despite decades of concerns that pollution spread far off-site.

At this point, NDEP pushed back.

In a September 2019 letter to the company, regulators said the company’s final groundwater report “must present a more conservative interpretation of the [mine-related plume] extent.”

To do so, ARCO added a “low-confidence plume” to their new groundwater model showing a slightly larger zone of potential contamination. But when asked to provide the volume and mass of the revised plume, NDEP said in a written statement that it did not request that from ARCO.

NDEP, as part of a lengthy written explanation, said they could request it for future studies.

An ARCO spokesperson said the potential contamination extends a maximum 4,600 feet from the mine, or less than a mile. The earlier model showed the plume extending about two miles.

ARCO said the new data made it “possible to bring the picture into sharper focus by comparing the patterns of minerals and ratios of metals to other metals in the varying geologic features.”

The final report makes another point clear: ARCO disagreed with the EPA’s approach. 

ARCO said “additional evaluations” were meant “to address the acknowledged limitations and conservative assumptions that were identified by ARC, EPA, NDEP and other stakeholders…”

The report concludes that the EPA directed the company to use an “an approach that did not account for all anthropogenic or naturally-occurring background sources within the study area.”

NDEP offered a different approach — one more favorable to the company.

Don Hunter is worried about the groundwater contamination underneath his home in Yerington, Nev. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

‘What the hell are we supposed to bathe in?’

For years, ARCO has paid for Hunter’s bottled water. Residents started receiving bottled water in the early 2000s. Now the company is phasing out deliveries for properties outside the plume. On the wall adjacent to Hunter’s kitchen, there’s a black stand for a five-gallon water bottle jug. 

“I’m not a scientist,” he said. “I'm just a homeowner.”

And someone should have to clean up his water, he says. To Hunter, this is no different than any business that leaves pollution. They are responsible for it from the “cradle to grave.”

“It’s just like guys that own service stations,” Hunter said. “They have to pay for the cleanup. They close it down, 30 years later they still have to pay for the cleanup.”

Hunter is worried about his neighbors too.

Other residents have wells in the area. Many of them have been linked to the city of Yerington’s municipal supply. ARCO paid for municipal connections for other nearby residents as part of a class-action settlement in 2013 worth up to $20 million. About 20 residences, including Hunter’s home, are on the list for bottled water deliveries but are too far to connect to a municipal line. 

ARCO also pays for bottled water deliveries for about 90 residences on the Yerington Paiute Tribe’s reservation north of the mine site. The tribe also has a water treatment system and entered into a confidential settlement agreement with ARCO last year, court records show.

Lovato did not say whether agriculture would be held responsible for the contamination, despite ARCO’s model showing that agricultural practices bore a portion of responsibility. But he also said that, moving forward, the agency would look at the entirety of the contamination in the area.

“When we look at risk, we just don't look at the risk from mining water,” Lovato said. “We look at risk from mined water in the context of everything else going on. It's not like we subtract out what may be attributed to the background or maybe attributed to agricultural activity.”

State law does not offer much recourse to domestic well owners whose groundwater has been contaminated. NDEP regulates public water systems but it does not regulate domestic wells. 

In March, Hunter received a letter from regulators saying he had the option of receiving a free point-of-use reverse osmosis system to filter the drinking water that comes out of his faucet. 

State regulators say that the risk for uranium exposure is a lot higher in drinking water than it is for other pathways. But that doesn’t stop Hunter from worrying about using his domestic well.

“We’re not supposed to drink the water,” he says. “What the hell are we supposed to bathe in?”

Climate change report shows pathway, hard political choices, for reaching Nevada’s carbon reduction goals

Students during a climate change strike

The easy part is over.

In 2019, lawmakers approved a bill raising the state’s renewable standards and promising to set high-profile targets for carbon reduction — all in the name of combating climate change in the state likely to be one of the hardest-hit by rising global temperatures.

But now, Nevada political leaders are now facing a hard truth — the state is unlikely to meet its new and ambitious carbon reduction and climate change goals without implementing major policy changes — such as adopting California’s stricter standards for vehicle emissions.

The 2019 version of the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s report on statewide greenhouse gas emissions and projections was released last Friday. For the first time, it includes a list of potential policies to reduce Nevada’s carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 28 percent in 2025, 45 percent by 2030 and all the way to zero or near-zero by 2050.

The report, which Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Director Brad Crowell previewed to lawmakers in November, was mandated under a 2019 bill requiring it to be released annually and include a list of policies to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. Previously, it was released every four years. 

The listed policies are not binding and would require action either by the Legislature or Gov. Steve Sisolak, but nonetheless represent steps toward major potential changes in the lives of Nevadans. It could mean stricter car emission standards, higher fuel taxes, a potential pause on gas hookups in new houses and stronger penalties aimed at discouraging single-occupant passenger vehicles and promoting other modes of transit.

It’s one of the first steps in a plan by Sisolak to “implement and accelerate cutting-edge solutions” to combat climate change — a goal outlined in an executive order that requires the creation of a State Climate Strategy by the end of 2020. The order also reiterates Nevada’s commitment to following the tenets of the Paris Climate Agreement, which the state entered in March after the Trump administration announced intentions in 2017 to withdraw from the international agreement.

But the emissions report indicates that lawmakers have an uphill climb. Assuming no other changes, the state is on track to miss the 2025 carbon reduction goal by 4 percent and the 2030 goal by 19 percent based on current emissions projection.

The report takes care to note that the identified policies are not a list of recommendations and that individual policies listed in the report require “further evaluation to determine whether additional planning, legal review, economic impact and cost-benefit analyses, regulation, and/or legislation may be required prior to implementation."

The report doesn’t “score” or otherwise indicate how effective each policy will be, but instead offers an initial look at options available to state leaders to combat climate change — as well as a preview of how politically fraught some of the individual policies will be to adopt. 

“It’s a robust and very thorough and complete report,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, who sponsored the bill requiring the report. “I think it provides a great baseline as to where emissions are taking place, and how far we have to go.”

Tracking emissions

The report measures greenhouse gas emissions through the prism of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and uses a baseline of the state’s 2005 emission levels (when statewide emissions hit a peak of 60.3 metric tons). Projected emissions come from seven industry sectors: transportation, electricity generation, industry, residential and commercial, waste, agriculture, and a general category of land use, land use change and forestry.

The state’s net emissions have decreased by nearly 11 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses since 2005, largely due to emission reductions in the state’s electricity generation sector through adoption of the Renewable Portfolio Standard. The state’s first “RPS” — which requires utilities to meet a certain standard of renewable energy production every year — was established in 1997 but has continued to rise over the past two decades, culminating in state lawmakers approving a bill in 2019 to raise the standard to 50 percent by 2030.

But reducing emissions from electricity generation is comparatively easy compared to those from transportation. Rather than dealing with one company (NV Energy) that controls electric service for most of the state, policy-makers must now grapple with changing the behavior of dozens of car manufacturers, auto dealers and millions of drivers on Nevada roads. 

“I think it's widely recognized that it's going to be more difficult to deal with,” Western Resource Advocates staff attorney Robert Johnston said in an interview. “It’s completely different when you're talking two million drivers in the state who tend to hold cars for a long time once they buy them. So you're looking at influencing the behavior of millions of people.”

Transportation

One of biggest and most politically fraught options listed in the report would be for the state to adopt California’s automobile emission standards, which are stricter than those required by the federal government and generally require new car models to produce lower emission levels.

Those standards, which are also used by 14 other states and the District of Columbia, are currently under a legal assault by the Trump administration that seeks to end the state’s ability to set stiffer requirements on emissions and minimum number of zero-emission vehicles. 

Nevada isn’t one of those states, but it nonetheless joined California and 21 other states in November 2019 in filing a counter-lawsuit to block the administration from revoking the state’s authority to set higher emission standards. And Sisolak said in a December interview that “nothing’s off the table” for carbon reduction policies, including emission standards.

Andy MacKay, executive director of the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association, said that his association supported a single, federal standard for emissions, and that implementing state-specific standards would create regulatory uncertainty and potentially drive the cost of new automobiles up, keeping older and less efficient cars on the road.

“I have lost hours and hours and hours of sleep on this,” he said. “I have huge concerns.”

MacKay said he was still reading through the report, and didn’t want to dismiss all of its potential recommendations off the bat, saying the automobile industry was not interested in disputing the science behind climate change. But he said he wanted to avoid any shocks that could economically damage the transportation industry or keep less-efficient cars on the road because new cars would be priced out of most people’s budget.

“Do you end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater by mandating California standards?” he said. “I think everyone would agree that its counter-productive to depress sales and keep older, more polluting vehicles on the road.”

Beyond adopting the emission standards, other potential policies mentioned in the report for reducing transportation emissions include:

  • Adopting a statewide “transportation demand program” for large employers, which would require them to “actively participate in minimizing the vehicle trips created by their business.”
  • Incentives for low or zero-emission vehicles for rideshare or similar services
  • Increase fuel taxes to reduce single-occupant vehicle usage
  • Lower parking costs for carpools and vanpools
  • Adopt a statewide parking policy to discourage single-occupant vehicle use
  • Adopt land use policies to discourage “impactful development,” including incentives for mixed-use, high-density or infill development, and impact fees based on projected increases or decreases in vehicle miles traveled
  • Evaluate requiring carpool lanes for any proposed highway expansion 
  • Create a state-based “cash for clunkers” car trade-in program for older cars
  • Create incentives to replace public transit and school buses with zero-emission models, and promote and expand programs for zero-emission vehicles

Patrick Donnelly, state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, praised the report as a “huge step in the right direction” but said he would like to see future carbon-reduction policies focus less on incentives and more on mandates, which he viewed as more effective.

“Ultimately there was somewhat of a very Nevada approach taken as far as almost everything is incentives,” he said. “This policy menu is very heavy on carrots and very light on sticks.”

Brooks, who is up for election in 2020, declined to say if he planned to introduce a bill establishing the California emission standards or any of the other suggestions in the report in the 2021 Legislature. He said that his current priority was working on SCR3, an interim study on “alternative solutions for transportation system funding” in the state.

Because the state’s current Highway Fund (which pays for road maintenance and construction) is funded out of gasoline taxes, Brooks said a top priority in 2021 will be finding a way to revamp the highway fund to incentivize things like public transportation and cutting down miles traveled without starving the funding source for transportation infrastructure. 

He added that lawmakers were looking at pieces of a new funding structure from multiple other states, but didn’t plan to directly copy any one state’s model.

“We need for Nevadans to drive (fewer) miles, and have more public transportation options available,” he said. “But if we’re going to decarbonize the transportation sector, it’ll reduce money for public transit and roads, so first and foremost we have to change that system if we’re going to make rapid progress.”

But getting Republicans to buy into many of proposed policies could be a tough sell. In an interview, Republican Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (who noted he owned an electric car) said that the state should rely on market forces to drive higher electric vehicle adoption and said he had strong qualms with adopting policies from the report without doing a cost-benefit analysis.

"I think it's a lot of pie-in-the sky, and I don't think it's feasible," he said. "I think that the cost to the state of Nevada, and the average citizen, it's too much. If you want to talk about specifics, give us specifics, but if you're going to try and adopt that whole report? No."

Attempts to modify Highway Fund structures in the 2019 Legislature went nowhere. A bill by Settelmeyer that would have imposed a surcharge on electric vehicle charging stations and direct the money to the Highway Fund failed to pass out of the 2019 Legislature.

Is it attainable?

The report states that hitting the “aggressive, but necessary” carbon reduction benchmarks will require action sooner rather than later, given the lag time between introducing a policy and seeing the effects by the 2025 and 2030 deadlines.

“In undertaking this challenge, it should be noted that most of the sectors included under SB 254, such as transportation, will require multiple years from policy creation to market/consumer adoption before significant (greenhouse gas) reductions will be realized,” the report states.

The report projects that sans any policy changes, emissions in the state will remain constant over the next decade — leaving Nevada short by about 2.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (4 percent) from its 2025 goal and about 19 percent shy of its 2030 goal.

Johnston, the attorney with Western Resource Advocates, said he was relatively confident the state could meet the 2025 reduction goal based on overall trends in the electricity generation sector. Those include a higher RPS passed in 2019 and NV Energy retiring its fleet of coal-firing plants and entering into record low-price solar contracts

But hitting the more aggressive 2030 target is less certain, and could depend on which party occupies in the White House after the 2020 election and if policies such as carbon pricing — essentially a tax on greenhouse gas emissions —  or a cap-and-trade system are adopted.

“I think it's absolutely doable, but the further out you go in time, the less certainty there is,” Johnston said.

But hitting the 2030 goal isn’t impossible. Johnston also noted that the state has already cut carbon emissions by 10.8 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent between 2005 and 2016 (the last year of data in the report), and so hitting the 45 percent reduction goal by 2030 would require cutting another 11.38 million metric tons out of the atmosphere over a similar 17-year period (2017 to 2030) — meaning that keeping up the current trend of emission reductions could see the state meet its 2030 goals.

“That's aggressive, but I think it's doable,” he said. “That's a ways out and there's a lot of unknowns as to the best way to get there.”

Donnelly, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the “lowest hanging fruit” was adopting a 100 percent RPS in the next legislative session. The report lists several recommendations to reduce electricity generation emissions, including a 100 percent RPS by or before 2050, a possible freeze on construction of any new fossil-fuel generating sources and directing the state’s Public Utilities Commission to take certain steps to require or incentivize electric utilities to reduce emissions.

But Donnelly said the goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050 and avoiding catastrophic effects of climate change would require additional and less politically palatable steps, pointing to the policy of pausing new natural gas hookups — affecting gas-powered heating and stoves, for example — in homes as an example of the kinds of policy the state would need to adopt to actually reach its 2050 goal of zero carbon emissions.

“Decarbonization is a hot potato (that) no one really wants to own it, because the reality is Nevadan’s lives are going to change drastically in order to fight the climate crisis,” Donnelly said. “We're not talking about a little tinkering around the edge, or maybe an electric car. We're talking about drastic change.”

State natural resources agency appoints Wilson to serve as top water regulator

A photo of the Walker River

Acting State Engineer Tim Wilson will take on the role in an official capacity, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced on Thursday. 

The official appointment fills a position at the center of several ongoing legal fights over water use across the state. As Nevada’s top water regulator, Wilson will continue being responsible for managing disputes over existing water rights, weighing applications for new water rights and reviewing dams. The state engineer also reviews subdivision maps and licenses well drillers.

Wilson has worked for the department since 1995 and previously served as the deputy state engineer. In a statement, Brad Crowell, who leads the natural resources department, said that Wilson’s “leadership will play a vital role in the state’s capacity to solve complex water challenges, while ensuring a sustainable water future for all Nevadans.”

“As both the driest state and one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, coupled with the current realities and impending risks our state faces from climate change, Nevada’s state engineer plays a pivotal role in advancing an innovative and forward-looking management of our limited water resources in all corners of our great state,” Crowell said.  

IndyMatters: How Sisolak’s climate change executive order will be implemented

Steve Sisolak signs executive order

Flanked by a small crowd of smiling lawmakers and state workers, Gov. Steve Sisolak last month sat down in front of an electric bus in Reno to sign an executive order directing his administration to take a serious look at climate change.

Signing the executive order was the most recent step for Sisolak — the state’s first Democratic governor in 20 years — in aligning Nevada with national and worldwide efforts to combat the effects of climate change, including signing up the state in March to meet the emission reduction targets as part of the U.S. Climate Alliance.

But beyond the rhetoric — which includes an oft-repeated Sisolak promise to “not spend a single second debating the reality of climate change” — what does the executive order actually do, and how will it affect the state and the lives of Nevadans?

Two of the individuals responsible for answering that question are Brad Crowell, director of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and David Bobzien, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy, both of whom were tasked to carry out many of the requirements in the executive order.

Both sat down for an interview on the Indymatters podcast in late November to discuss the executive order, how it differs from a 2019 bill requiring more frequent emissions reporting and the potential suggestions and policy changes to reduce carbon emissions that may end up before the 2021 Legislature.

“This executive order was a great way to put all of those things together and provide the platform, in many ways, for a lot of the work and the coordination that the administration was already doing,” Bobzien said. “But if anything this executive order makes it clear that the governor values this work and wants to see us make progress on it.”

The actual text of the executive order largely reiterates but also adds a few wrinkles and new requirements to a law passed in the 2019 Legislature, SB254, which increases the frequency of a mandated report on the state’s emissions and requires the agency to identify potential solutions and policies that would help meet emission reduction goals. Carbon emission reduction goals, which use 2005 as a baseline, call for targets of a 28 percent reduction by 2025 and 45 percent by 2030, with an aspirational goal of zero or near-zero emissions by 2050.

But as he indicated during an interim legislative meeting last month, Crowell said the forthcoming report (required to be released before the end of the year) will say that highly-touted measures to increase Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030 will likely not be enough to hit the targeted emission reduction goals set by the state.

“We're going to have to have some more revolutionary and innovative changes in decarbonizing our economy to reach that 2030 goal,” he said.

Both Bobzien and Crowell said one of the most likely targets for future emission reduction policies will come in the transportation sector, which is projected to become the state’s largest net emitter of greenhouse gasses. Although Nevada has not adopted California’s tougher rules on fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, the state did join onto a lawsuit led by its western neighbor to stop the Trump administration from revoking its ability to set higher emission standards than the federal level, and Crowell said the state was keeping a close eye on the outcome of the litigation.

“Right now we don't have a set regulatory pathway, but we're going to be analyzing what has been done in other states and determining what is best for Nevada,” Crowell said. “I will say that when you look at vehicle emissions writ large in Nevada, the heavy-duty vehicle sector outweighs the passenger vehicle sector pretty significantly.”

Bobzien said the state was already taking on one proactive measure to reduce transportation sector emissions by building out electric vehicle infrastructure, primarily through the program launched in 2015 known as the Nevada Electric Highway, which provides electric vehicle charging stations in rural communities around the state. Other suggested policy ideas may come from partnering with the state’s Department of Transportation (required in the executive order) to cut down on vehicle miles traveled as well as alternative transportation methods.

“It's fair to say that as we continue down this road of refining the modeling and understanding exactly what the data is showing us when it comes to the emissions, we'll be able to in the future pair that with more specific policy ideas for how to deal with those different aspects of the emissions,” Bobzien said.

Although the executive order requires the administration to produce a “State Climate Strategy” by December 2020, Crowell and Bobzien said they were still determining the process forward to develop that strategy over the next year, but indicated it would likely involve public meetings as well as input from local and tribal governments.

“There's just absolutely no way to do what we've set out for ourselves in the data without robust stakeholder engagement and a new level of collaboration among executive branch agencies,” Crowell said.

After announcement, state officials determine Swank ineligible to lead outdoor recreation office

Fly fishing on the Truckee River

State officials have determined that Assemblywoman Heidi Swank is ineligible to lead Nevada’s newly formed outdoor recreation office, despite announcing the lawmaker’s appointment last month. 

Days after the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced the appointment, a legislative attorney notified Swank that the Nevada Constitution bars legislators from being appointed to an office created during their term.

As a result, the department said in a statement that it would resume a search for someone to lead the office charged with promoting the recreation industry. The decision was first reported on Twitter by Review-Journal political editor Steve Sebelius.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the department said the agency “will be resuming its search for an Administrator for the newly established Division of Outdoor Recreation.”

The agency did not elaborate on how it had missed the issue during the initial vetting process. A spokesperson for the department said the agency became aware of the issue "during consultation with Assemblywoman Swank regarding a proposed start date and the process for transitioning from her current role to the role of administrator for the new Division."

After the appointment was announced in late November and spread across Twitter, Swank said she was notified by a Legislative Counsel Bureau attorney that the move could conflict with a provision in the Constitution. 

That provision reads: “No Senator or member of Assembly shall, during the term for which he shall have been elected, nor for one year thereafter be appointed to any civil office of profit under this State which shall have been created, or the emoluments of which shall have been increased during such term, except such offices as may be filled by elections by the people."

Swank said she then notified Department of Conservation and Natural Resources director Brad Crowell, and everyone involved agreed the constitutional provision barred the appointment. 

“Everyone had the same reaction,” Swank said in an interview. “This can’t happen.”

A Democrat representing Las Vegas, Swank chaired the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining committee during the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions. That committee is charged with filtering policies on contentious issues, from appropriating water to managing wildlife. 

Swank did not comment about whether she planned to stay in the Legislature. 

“I have to consider my options at this point,” said Swank, who has served four terms in the Assembly. “It seems like a good time to take a step back and think about things.”

Swank said that she applied for the position through a formal application process, seeing an opportunity to combine her passion for the outdoors with her work in conservation. Swank founded the Nevada Preservation Foundation, which aims to preserve historic buildings. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said the agency received dozens of applications and interviewed several candidates for the position.

Creating the Nevada Division of Outdoor Recreation (NDOR) was a priority for several conservation groups during the 2019 legislative session.  The Legislature allocated $657,000 to the division over two years with the goal of hiring an administrator and deputies to support the state’s outdoor recreation industry.

The office will be charged with creating a state recreation plan, advocating for the industry — often left out of the economic development equation — and promoting conservation on public lands used for activities like hiking, skiing and hunting.

Although legislators have transitioned to civil service in the past, the issue presented by the new office and Swank’s appointment is more rare. The state constitutional provision in question does not prevent lawmakers from working in state government. Instead, it prevents them from appointments to unelected civil offices that were created during a legislator’s term.

Because of the rarity of the situation, Swank said she understood why it did not come up in the initial vetting process and was only discovered after the agency announced her appointment.

“I can’t blame anyone in this,” Swank said. “It was a bit of bad luck.”

Despite higher RPS, Nevada unlikely to hit promised CO2 reduction goals without additional changes

Reid Gardner Generating Station is removed from the electric grid

Just seven months after state lawmakers passed and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a “milestone” bill raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), an upcoming report will indicate that Nevada is unlikely to meet its ambitious carbon reduction goals over the next decade without taking additional steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

During a meeting of the interim Legislative Committee on Energy on Friday, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Director Brad Crowell gave lawmakers a sneak peek, as well as a wake-up call, on how projected greenhouse gas emissions are still trending higher than statewide emission reduction goals.

That comes in spite of a bill approved in the 2019 Legislature gradually raising the state’s RPS — a rough measurement of renewable energy use — to 50 percent by 2030. Crowell said the increase in renewable energy production will help the state lower emissions, but will possibly fall short of the emission reduction standards called for in the 25-state U.S. Climate Alliance, which Nevada joined in March and aims to match the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

“The big point to underscore is that the RPS alone is not going to get us where we need to go,” he said during the meeting. “And so we're going to need to be smart and innovative in enacting other policies, looking at the timescales and the dollar amounts needed to invest to achieve reductions in these other categories and meet the thresholds.”

The bill that prompted the discussion is SB254, a measure passed along party lines in the 2019 Legislature which increases the frequency of a state report on greenhouse gas emissions from once every four years to annual, and requires state agencies to set forth a “statement of policies”  that could help achieve statewide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. 

The bill calls for the report to identify policies to reduce emissions (compared to a 2005 level baseline) by 28 percent in 2025 and by 45 percent by 2030, as well as a “qualitative assessment” of the policies support a goal of zero or near-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050. Emissions are categorized under the following labels: electricity production, transportation, industry, commercial and residential, agriculture and land use and forestry.

Those reduction goals are similar to the ones that Gov. Steve Sisolak agreed to meet by joining the U.S. Climate Alliance in March, an agreement by governors in 25 states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025. The agreement was formed after President Donald Trump’s administration announced its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a 2015 international treaty designed to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius this century.

In the most recently released report by the division, Nevada’s emissions were estimated at a little more than 44 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (standard measurement for measuring carbon emissions). Emissions in the state peaked in 2005 at 60.3 metric tons of emissions, but declined after the retirement of coal-firing plants and the 2008 economic recession, which caused business activity and transportation to decrease.

According to the draft report, Nevada’s projected greenhouse emissions in 2025 will be around 41.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — a 23 percent reduction from 2005, or 12.2 million metric tons less than the high-water emissions mark. In part, the decrease is driven by the scheduled retirement of the two coal-burning Valmy plants, which NV Energy has scheduled to close in 2021 and 2025.

That emissions number is variable based on how the department measures the effect of land use and forestry as a possible offset of carbon emissions, meaning the projected emissions total has a possible 4.8 million metric ton possible swing in either direction — possibly enough for the state to meet the 2025 goal.

“Our 2025 target, we're going to maybe just make it,” he said at the meeting on Friday.

But the draft report shown to lawmakers shows the state far away from its 2030 carbon emissions goal; projections estimate that even as the electric generation share of emissions continues to decrease over the next decade, estimated emissions will only decrease to 40.3 million metric tons — nearly 20 percent, or 11 million metric tons, off the stated goal.

To be clear, the legislation passed in 2019 does not give the department any new power to compel reductions in emissions, instead merely upping the reporting frequency and identifying potential ways to hit the 2025 and 2030 goals. And Nevada’s emissions make up only a small percentage (0.65) of the country’s overall emissions.

Crowell told lawmakers that the draft report was partially meant to show that just relying on the increased RPS and not taking other steps to reduce emissions in other areas would result in the state missing out on the stated goals.

“This is based on existing policy, so in order to get reductions in those other sectors outside of the electricity generation, we're going to need to institute new policies to make sure that we can get to those thresholds,” he said. 

But finding potential solutions to reduce emissions in other areas is likely to be the hard part. Crowell said he was “hesitant” to share potential solutions before the release of the actual report, but noted that the department was already taking steps to reduce emissions in the transportation sectors — projected to soon become the largest net emitter of greenhouse gases as emissions from electrical generation is projected to decrease over the next decade.

Crowell did mention work that the Governor’s Office of Energy has done to install electric vehicle charging stations in rural areas of the state, as well as programs by the department to convert gas-powered vehicles to electric or upgrading diesel engines to more efficient models. This includes ground transport equipment at airports, natural-gas-powered refuse trucks in Clark and Washoe Counties and funding for clean-diesel school buses in rural Humboldt County.

But many of those programs are being funded through the state’s $24.8 million share of the Volkswagen Settlement — a finite source of funds for expenses that, as Crowell said, “cost a lot relative to the amount of money we have.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, who sponsored the emission reporting bill and is a member of the interim energy committee, agreed that the most likely policy solutions would target electric production and transportation sources, saying those two would have the biggest “bang for our buck.”

Brooks, who is up for re-election in 2020, said he did not have “concrete policy recommendations” at this point but that reducing emissions from transportation sources would require not only electric vehicle infrastructure but also improved public transportation and better urban planning. He additionally said that he and others were carefully watching the outcome of the Trump administration’s fight with California over the state’s ability to set emission standards more strict than the federal government, saying it could “weigh heavily on what we’re even able to do as a state.”

Brooks also mentioned that he wanted the committee to take a look at mileage standards in a way that resulted in less miles driven per person in the state, as well as a holistic look at changing the state’s algebra for its Highway Fund. The interim Legislative Committee on Energy, which is chaired by Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, is tasked with authorizing two studies before the start of the 2021 legislative session — one on renewable energy development, and the other on alternatives for transportation funding in the state.

Brooks discounted some Republican skepticism of the ongoing Nevada DMV pilot project to track odometer readings — which could lead to a mileage standard down the road — saying that some of the comments made were intended to “muddy the waters.”

“Eventually, some of the politicians and elected officials in this state and in this country are going to realize that the majority of voters, especially younger voters, are really concerned about this climate crisis and want to see action from their elected officials,” he said in an interview. “I think, after they hear either at the ballot box or in their inbox from those voters, they’re going to understand that they need to act.”

Heidi Swank to leave Legislature, head new outdoor recreation division

Smoke over Red Rock National Conservation Area

Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank will end her legislative career after being appointed to serve as the inaugural administrator of the state’s new outdoor recreation division.

Swank, a four-term legislator who chaired the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining committee in the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions, was announced on Monday as the new administrator of the state’s Division of Outdoor Recreation, created in the 2019 legislative session as a way to promote recreation businesses and promote conservation efforts.

In a statement, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (which houses the division) called Swank “uniquely qualified” to take on the role, citing her founding of a cultural and historic preservation nonprofit and her multiple conservation and preservation bills throughout her four terms as a state lawmaker.

“Heidi’s extensive professional and legislative experience combined with her vision for the new Division are the perfect match to ensure outdoor recreational opportunities reach every corner of and every community in Nevada,” DCNR Director Bradley Crowell said in a statement.

Under the bill creating the outdoor recreation division (AB486), the office was allocated $657,000 over the two-year budget cycle to hire an administrator and deputy position, with wide latitude to promote and coordinate outdoor recreation businesses as well as conservation efforts. Other duties of the office include creating a state recreation plan, advocating for federal conservation funding and collecting data on the industry.

The legislation also creates an outdoor recreation advisory board, composed of various state agency heads and chaired by the lieutenant governor or a designee.

“Nevada has so many amazing outdoor opportunities and a variety of agencies and organizations doing work in this arena,” Swank said in a statement. “I look forward to bringing all of these entities together to further Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy and get more Nevadans outdoors.”Swank’s appointment will mean the 63-member Legislature will have at least 12 open seats in 2020, amid term limits, retirements and lawmakers running for other offices. Swank ran unopposed in the 2018 general election; her Assembly District 16 has a heavy Democratic voter registration advantage.

The Sandoval Years: Shepherding energy and the environment

Solar panels at Apple's solar field in Yerington, Nevada

Fourth of a five-part series examining outgoing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s legacy in politics, health care, economic development, education and the environment.

The get-along governor was not afraid to show his teeth.

When he convened cabinet meetings, Gov. Brian Sandoval, whose second term ends Monday, would tell his top advisers that if they were pleasing everyone, they were lying to someone, recalled Tony Wasley, who serves as the director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

“He wasn't afraid, as he put it, to show a little fang once in awhile," Wasley said.

In the nation’s driest state — with more than 85 percent of its land managed by the federal government — issues related to energy and the environment often pose a Gordian knot for policymakers. Nearly every land issue, from citing a renewable energy project to protecting an endangered species, involves an exhaustive list of interests: cities, ranchers, tribes, miners, environmentalists, farmers, hunters, regulators, federal land managers and at times, Congress.

Oftentimes, no one is wholly happy with the outcome of these complex, acronym-laden issues, which typically become the subject of lengthy lawsuits and are reduced to campaign rhetoric. In other words, they can be dangerous territory for politicians should they poke the wrong group.

“Politics are politics,” Wasley said in a recent interview. “However the governor always pursued what he felt was not only right but also [what he felt] was best for the state of Nevada."

Sandoval’s tenure was marked by debates over perennial issues for Nevada: water, land and development. The governor entered the fray in arguments over rooftop solar, siting renewable energy projects, public land expansions, grazing rights, drought policy, and controversial rules to protect the sage grouse, an imperiled bird that reflects the tension between development and conservation. If there was a lodestar to Sandoval’s approach on energy and land issues, his top aides said it was to ensure a balance between economic interests and the environment.

He was a pragmatist, they said, and not an ideologue.

At times, this approach has rankled groups on both sides of the spectrum. Environmentalists were frustrated with Sandoval over his initial silence in the rooftop solar debate, his veto of a renewable portfolio standard bill and his administration’s recent proposal to release about 500,000 acres of wilderness study areas for potential development. At the same time, many exploration geologists and rural counties took issue with the governor’s support for land restrictions to protect the sage grouse, which prompted a lawsuit from the attorney general.

But despite the criticism from both sides, his top aides said he did his homework — and he made the decision he felt was right, even if it meant reversing a prior policy position.

“He’s not a micromanager,” said Leo Drozdoff, the governor’s former director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “But he knows his stuff.”

Reporter ask Gov. Brian Sandoval questions about wildfire, invasive species and sage-grouse after an event at the MontBleu Resort in Lake Tahoe on Monday, Sept. 17. (James Glover/Western Governors Association)

A sage grouse plan for Nevada

On Sept. 22, 2015, Sandoval joined two Democratic Western governors and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a fellow Republican, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. The occasion was to announce a deal between the Obama administration and a group of bipartisan Western governors to keep the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act if the states agreed to impose voluntary conservation measures. Sandoval had argued that allowing the bird to slip onto the list would halt mining and energy projects across the state, devastating rural economies. The sage grouse range encompasses most of the state. Accepting voluntary measures, he said, was a better long-term approach.

“He knew the consequences of inaction,” Drozdoff said.

But the plans immediately drew ire, including from Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt who signed the state onto a lawsuit challenging the plans Sandoval had said he supported.

Sandoval said, at the time, that Laxalt was operating in his “personal capacity,” but the move reflected a broader divide between Sandoval and his own party on the sage grouse issue.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that all the Republican members of the congressional delegation hailed the lawsuit. That rift would continue with the election of Donald Trump, whose administration has attempted to undo parts of the Obama-era plan and other land protections.

But where some rifts are canyons and others are gullies, this was somewhere in-between.

As a spokeswoman for Sandoval noted at the time of the plan’s release, the governor remained concerned about the land restrictions in the original plan. And Sandoval has supported some aspects of the Trump administration’s changes to the original Obama-era plans. For instance, Sandoval’s office said it supported more flexible grazing and the removal of certain habitat designation as focal areas that had limited what activities could take place on public land.

Where Sandoval has remained steadfast is in advocating for rules specific to Nevada.

The 2015 planning process allowed states to develop specific blueprints for conserving sage grouse. And Nevada chose a free-market approach, whereby companies that wanted to develop on sage grouse habitat could offset their impacts by purchasing credits for restored habitat. The Conservation Credit System — a form of mitigation — was a key part of the state plan, but it came under threat when the Trump administration removed mitigation rules earlier this year.

Gov. Brian Sandoval views sage grouse, an imperiled bird that has come to symbolize the debate over conservation and development in the West. (Tony Wasley/Nevada Department of Wildlife).

In an interview with The Nevada Independent in September, Sandoval said he had concerns about the Trump administration's approach since it negated the long process of bringing groups — ranchers, miners, hunters — together to agree on a sage-grouse strategy before 2015.

“We’re able to demonstrate that [the program] is working,” he said. “Don’t take something away that is working. And it took a long time to negotiate that with the mining industry and now the mining industry is a full partner in that regard. That was the point. To preserve the bird, to preserve the landscape and allow a very important industry in our state to continue.”

Since then, the governor’s office has negotiated with the Department of Interior to continue using the state plan, winning a big concession in a draft document in December. A few days later, Sandoval issued an executive order asking the state’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to implement Nevada’s plan by creating requirements for developers to mitigate their impact for sage grouse, requirements that the Trump administration had previously repealed.

Wasley called the executive order a “capstone” of Sandoval’s efforts on the issue.

“I really think that shows his desire to provide both business certainty — for industry’s operating on Nevada’s landscape — as well as conservation assurances for the bird,” Wasley said.

Electricians David Livingston, left, and Mario Rojas with 1 Sun Solar inspects solar panels in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The double-edged sword of deliberation

For those who watched the Sandoval administration, what the sage-grouse debate exemplified was the governor’s desire to bring together varying interest groups to discuss a complex topic. It also showed Sandoval’s commitment to a multi-step process, rather than to one quick decision.

In 2012, after the sage grouse inched closer to a listing under the Endangered Species Act, Sandoval created the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to explore options for protecting the bird, and the recommendations from that group were ultimately incorporated into the Nevada plan.

“The governor, in many of the things he did in his tenure, brought together all sorts of interesting groups that might not have necessarily [talked],” said Dana Bennett, the president of the Nevada Mining Association who was involved in negotiating the sage grouse plans.

Many said the governor often used his affable nature and his knowledge of issues to his advantage, personally meeting with whomever he had to influence. Drozdoff said this was evident early on in his term, when the governor, as Drozdoff put it, faced two choices: pull out of the bi-state Tahoe compact or advocate for changes to ease development restrictions.

After Nevada threatened to withdraw from the agreement with legislation in 2011 without the development of a new regional plan, Sandoval and Gov. Jerry Brown came together in 2013 to ensure they improved the compact while continuing a collaborative approach to Tahoe issues. During the 2013 session, Drozdoff noted that Sandoval personally met with California legislators during a trip to California, the kind of touch that helped the Nevada governor negotiate.

“They took great comfort that they heard from him directly,” Drozdoff said.

But during his tenure, the governor’s deliberative and thoughtful approach, an asset for creating policy, sometimes worked against him in a fast-moving public arena where everything is politics.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the debate over rooftop solar. The messy back-and-forth between rooftop solar companies and NV Energy over the value of an emerging technology garnered national headlines, seeping into the presidential race as Hillary Clinton weighed in. Others, from Tesla CEO Elon Musk to actor Mark Ruffalo, who spoke at a regulatory meeting, chimed in, too.

As hard as Sandoval tried to stay out of it, solar companies brought him into the debate. Caught in the middle was a governor who deferred to a process underway in the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the utility and decides how much it should reimburse solar customers for sending excess electricity to the grid under a system known as “net metering.”

A vice president for policy at rooftop solar company Sunrun slammed the governor for his close relationship with top NV Energy lobbyists. The company sued for text messages between the governor’s office and NV Energy. A spokeswoman for the governor’s office fired back, telling Nevada Independent Editor Jon Ralston the claims were “uninformed, false and outrageous.”

At issue was a decision by the utilities commission, a governor-appointed regulatory panel, to reduce the value of credits NV Energy had to pay to rooftop solar customers starting in 2016. Solar companies slammed the commissioners — and the governor who appointed them — for cozying up to the utility. The governor, a former judge and attorney general who had experience in energy as a former lawyer for utility shareholders, said he would not interfere with the ruling.

As a result, the solar industry hammered the governor in public for the next five months. Sunrun and SolarCity stopped doing business in Nevada, leading to the loss of hundreds of jobs.

During those months, the conflict between NV Energy and rooftop solar firms (dubbed the “solarcoaster” by some) escalated as the utilities commission dug in and the governor’s office continued to publicly maintain its commitment to letting the regulatory process play out.

But that started to change in March, as the governor pivoted to a collaborative public process similar to the one used to come to an agreement over how to protect sage grouse habitat. At that point, the governor’s office became more actively involved in diffusing the situation.

“My view is that he did what was appropriate,” said Rose McKinney-James, a former utility commissioner and a rooftop solar lobbyist involved in the negotiations. “The debacle around rooftop solar was extremely frustrating, and it was a very difficult time for us from a regulatory standpoint. When they let us down, to his credit, he intervened. And that intervention is what put the rooftop solar issue back on track by identifying new regulatory leadership to revisit it."

Sandoval empaneled the New Energy Industry Task Force in 2016 to explore legislation to modernize Nevada’s electric grid and fix elements of the commission’s rooftop solar decision. At the task force’s first meeting, Sandoval aide Dale Erquiaga acknowledged that months of criticism over the issue had damaged the state's reputation as a leader in clean energy.

“We would like your advice on how we move beyond that,” Erquiaga said.

Not only had the rooftop solar fight hurt Nevada’s reputation, it had also left an opening for businesses to pursue the Energy Choice Initiative to dismantle NV Energy’s monopoly.

Around the same time that the task force started meeting, Sandoval met with the CEO of Sunrun, which agreed to drop its lawsuit. Over the summer of 2016, his office also tried to broker a deal between NV Energy and solar companies that ultimately fell apart.

But Sandoval’s biggest move came in September when he orchestrated a shake-up of the utilities commission, arguing that it needed “a fresh perspective and new direction.”

"The commission took action,” said Paul Thomsen, the chair of the utilities commission during the rooftop solar debate and a former energy aide for Sandoval. “It wasn't popular. And I think the governor stepped in when he felt that he needed to bring balance to the debate. He commented on the commission decision and voiced support for a happy medium."

Angie Dykema, head of the Governor’s Office of Energy, started with the administration during the peak of the rooftop solar fight, and said the issue was a challenging one. The governor did not want ratepayers to pick up the cost of rooftop solar customers. But at the same time, a key priority was expanding renewables, and Sandoval wanted the rooftop solar industry to remain.

“He wanted that message to be loud and clear,” she said. “And it got kind of muddied, I guess.”

With new faces at the utilities commission and legislation that Sandoval signed in 2017, the governor was able to lure rooftop solar companies back to the state 18 months after they left.

“I know all the solar folks are here — I know we had a little hiccup in between all of this — but without that I honestly do believe we wouldn’t be standing here today with the success that we’re having so I really am pleased,” Sandoval said at the time of the bill signing.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, right speaks while Former Sen. Harry Reid looks on during the National Clean Energy Summit at the Bellagio on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A business outlook on renewables

Within the Sandoval administration, the rooftop solar debate was a frustrating blip for a governor who had emphasized clean energy at a time when many Republicans had steered away from the issue. Unlike many other Western states, Nevada does not have a thriving coal or petroleum industry. If Nevada wanted to get into energy development, it had to look toward renewables.

Sandoval recognized this, several advisers said, and he viewed clean energy development as a win-win issue: something that would be good for the economy and good for the environment.

Under the Sandoval administration, Dykema said the state saw $7.8 billion in total investment, including capital, payroll and taxes, for new renewable projects. At the same time, the state issued about $861 million in tax abatements to help get renewable energy projects off their feet.

“It was more of an economic development focus,” Dykema said. “His approach to it was [that the state really needed] to embrace these emerging technologies, like distributed energy resources, electric vehicles and rooftop solar. We [needed] to be on the forefront of that and embrace them."

Sandoval, a pragmatic politician, worked across the aisle to achieve many of those goals.

He came together with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to support the early closure of the coal-fired Reid Gardner Generating Station near Moapa. The ensuing bill in 2013 to close the power plant shifted the state away from imported coal and pointed it in the direction of renewables with the inclusion of a clean energy requirement for NV Energy.

One year later, Sandoval, working with Brown in California, filed a letter with federal regulators supporting the expansion of a regional Energy Imbalance Market to better integrate solar into the power grid. Thomsen, who worked for Sandoval at the time, cited the move as an example of the governor’s ability to work across party lines and broker deals with Democratic governors.

By 2017, 18 percent of the energy generated in the state came from renewables, including solar and geothermal, doubling from the amount produced when Sandoval took office in 2010. About 72 percent comes from natural gas and a sliver — only 7 percent — came from coal, according to the state’s 2017 energy status report. Nevada also benefited from its close proximity to California, with strong renewable goals, exporting new energy to users outside of the state.

Exporting energy, Dykema noted, “is still a win for Nevada.”

Most rooftop solar companies and large-scale solar developers came to Nevada from other states. When it comes to renewables, the expertise of Nevada-headquartered companies largely lies in the one renewable source that is often left out of the conversation: geothermal.

During his tenure, Sandoval actively worked to boost the state’s geothermal industry. His administration helped push for a national geothermal laboratory, pledging $1 million to the effort in November 2017. The state ultimately lost the $140 million in grant dollars to Utah.

The governor’s office worked to support geothermal, which uses the Earth’s heat to produce power, in other ways too. As part of the negotiations with the Navy over an expansion of its air station in Fallon, Sandoval proposed removing wilderness-like protections to offset the impacts on geothermal development from the military’s proposed closure of about 700,000 acres of land.

This move frustrated conservationists, who have argued that it would be possible to promote geothermal without pulling back protections for about 500,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas.

Environmentalists supported Sandoval on clean energy, but many felt he didn’t go far enough.

While Democratic governors cast their clean energy priorities under the umbrella of climate change, Sandoval avoided using the term for most of his tenure. Instead, he preferred to argue renewables were good for jump-starting the economy, noting their environmental benefits.

“He talks about it as being good for the economy,” said Brad Crowell, who currently leads the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In this case, being good for the economy is being good for the environment as well. That doesn’t escape him by any means.”

In a recent interview with The Nevada Independent, Sandoval said his record around energy and creating the state’s electric highway has worked to reduce the impact of climate change.

“I’ve never denied that there’s climate change, and I think what’s more important than answering whether you believe in it or not is what your actions are,” he said. “So I think that Nevada has done a lot of things with my encouragement and signing and sponsoring laws.”

Reid, in an interview, noted that Sandoval regularly participated in or helped host his annual clean energy summits in Las Vegas unless there was a conflict.

“[Climate change is] a tremendously difficult issue and it’s been my issue for a long long time, so I’ve been way out front on that and as far as I’m concerned, he never held me back from doing anything I wanted to do,” Reid said.

Andy Maggi, who runs the Nevada Conservation League, said Sandoval’s environmental record was solid but his record fell short of what it could have been after he vetoed legislation to increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and community solar bill in 2017.

“For whatever reason, he was never able to go all in,” Maggi said. “So I feel like there were some missed opportunities as well. He left some things on the table that would have really solidified his legacy, not just as a governor who was good on clean energy, but a champion.”

At the time, Sandoval said he vetoed the bill to increase Nevada’s renewable energy portfolio to 40 percent by 2030 because of the uncertainty created by Question 3, the effort to strip NV Energy of its monopoly on the state’s energy supply. The ballot measure failed in November.

Without Question 3 in the mix, Dykema said “it would have been a completely different story.”

Sandoval recently told The Nevada Independent that he supports increasing the standard.

Yes, I want there to be a more aggressive renewable portfolio standard and now the next governor, the next Legislature will have the benefit of knowing there is not going to be energy choice and they’ll have a lot less issues that are complicating that,” he said.

Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks at the opening of Ice Age Fossils State Park in Southern Nevada. (Megan Messerly/The Nevada Independent)

Managing federal land

When the governor first came to office, Drozdoff recalled a number of wildfires hitting Northern Nevada. In 2012, about 10,000 people were evacuated in Washoe County because of a fast-moving 3,000 acre fire. As a governor, Sandoval took his role as a fire manager seriously, Drozdoff said.

“He was very moved by fires early in his governorship,” Drozdoff said.

In the basins that pockmark Nevada, the increasing intensity of wildfire remains one of the most potent threats to activities that take place on the state’s public land, from grazing to hunting. But what complicates fire management for the state is the fact that more than 85 percent of land in Nevada is managed by the federal government. This was a fact Sandoval mentioned frequently, and his advisers said he encouraged his staff to work closer with their federal counterparts.

This issue resurfaced last year when Nevada saw the worst single fire in state history. In total, just two fires last year burned more than 1 million acres in Nevada, destroying grazing land for ranchers, habitat for threatened species like the sage grouse and recreation opportunities.

In September, Sandoval told reporters that the federal government could do more to help fighting fires by tilting the balance from a sole focus on fighting fires to fire prevention.

“It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of management,” he said. “Nevada is 86 percent federal land so the federal government has a very big and important responsibility to do the right thing.”

As with any Nevada governor, the push-and-pull between the state and the federal government was one dynamic that defined Sandoval’s tenure on a laundry list of land management issues.

During his time in office, the Obama administration designated two national monuments: Gold Butte and Basin and Range. When the Basin and Range National Monument was designated, Sandoval criticized the process for bypassing Congress and excluding some stakeholders.

But his response was largely neutral. And again, in 2016, when the Obama administration designated Gold Butte National Monument, Sandoval offered only a tepid response where in states like Utah, Republican governors came out swinging against monument designations.

In part, this was due to Sandoval’s approach: to deal with the political reality as it was.

After the creation of Gold Butte, Sandoval said that once he “recognized the inevitability of this designation,” he said his focus shifted to mitigating its impact on local communities. It was also the result of his relationship with Reid and a strategy to neutralize Sandoval on the issue.

As part of the campaigns for both monuments, a coalition including former Reid staffer Megan Jones built popular support for the designations among businesses and the broader public. As the designation neared, protecting Gold Butte became a popular cause because of its proximity to the Bundy Ranch, the site of an armed standoff between scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over Bundy’s decades-long refusal to pay grazing fees.

A monument designation became increasingly inevitable, Sandoval worked with Reid and the White House to address his concerns, such as adjusting the proposed monument boundaries to protect private land and ensure that activities like hunting and off-road recreation could occur.

"Without Senator Reid and Governor Sandoval's partnership, in some way shape or form, we would not have two monuments in the state of Nevada,” said Jones, a partner at Hilltop Public Solutions.

When the Trump administration considered reviewing the national monuments, Sandoval told the Reno Gazette Journal he supported small adjustments to Gold Butte National Monument. President Trump’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended reductions in the size of the monument, but not to make wholesale changes, as it did in places like Utah.

"The reason we didn't see [large changes] in the final recommendations was probably due to a lot of quiet negotiations" involving the Sandoval administration, Jones said.

The Gold Butte designation, in part, also bookmarked a chapter in the Bundy saga, the state’s most recent brush with the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sprung up in the 70s among Western ranchers who wanted control of federal public land placed in the hands of the state.

As the BLM began rounding up cattle at the Bundy Ranch but before the conflict escalated into an armed standoff, Sandoval, Sen. Dean Heller and several other elected officials criticized what they saw as the BLM’s excessive tactics in resolving the dispute over cattle ranching.

“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” Sandoval said in a statement before the standoff. “The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly.”

Patrick Donnelly, state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said he rejected the idea that the governor was “moderate” on the environment, especially when it came to public land.

“The Sandoval administration has been a mixed bag for the environment,” he said. “But on the whole, I think he's taken several actions that are detrimental to the future of our public lands."

Donnelly cited Sandoval’s willingness to support any reductions to Gold Butte and the state’s decision to defer a Superfund listing for a former copper mine near the Yerington Paiute Tribe reservation as ways in which Sandoval set what could be slippery precedents for land policy.

Sandoval had to reckon not only with a Nevada constant — federal land ownership — but he was also forced to deal with extreme drought that sapped water resources across the state.

In 2015, Sandoval empaneled a Drought Forum that explored ways to prepare Nevada for future droughts under the strict rules of Western water law. The forum recommended changes to Nevada water law, but many of them are controversial and the legislature did not act on them in the last session. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has proposed bills for the upcoming legislative session. They are expected to meet pushback from a broad coalition.

“The Drought Forum and the recommendations that came out of that, I think are a real legacy for the state,” Crowell said. “I think it’s incumbent upon [the Legislature] now to help us enact some of those recommendations from the drought forum so we are actually prepared for the next drought, not just saying ‘we’re not in a drought now so we don’t have to worry about it.'”

Sandoval also chose drought as his focus during his chairmanship of the Western Governors Association, displaying what Drozdoff described as his desire to tackle issues in many venues.

Jim Ogsbury, the executive director of the association, said Sandoval approached the issue from a state-driven perspective, creating a framework for the organization's future policy work.

"He established the template and model for nearly all of the initiatives that have followed."

When Crowell, who came from the Obama administration, first took the job with Sandoval, he said he recognized that the two saw eye-to-eye on the value of the outdoors. This came through in the governor’s commitment to creating two new state parks: the Ice Age Fossils State Park and the Walker River State Recreation Area. Crowell and Drozdoff said Sandoval prided himself on his commitment to the state park system, becoming the only governor to visit all of the parks.

“It’s something he wore with pride,” Drozdoff said.

Nevada Independent reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.