Lawmakers look to end a lucrative green building tax abatement program

Madori Vista townhomes under construction

For more than a decade, some of Nevada’s most iconic casino resorts and businesses have benefited from the same tax abatement program — giving substantial property tax breaks for new or renovated energy-efficient buildings.

The state’s Green Building Tax Abatements program is still in heavy use — a state report estimated more than $25 million in property taxes were abated through the 2020 fiscal year, with $105 million in property taxes abated since 2010. State budget analysts say that more than 160 buildings in the state — from Park MGM, Wynn/Encore and even the T-Mobile Arena — enjoy partial property tax abatements through the program.

But the abatement program’s days could be numbered.

Lawmakers in a joint budget meeting on Friday approved moving forward with the planned elimination of the abatement program, which will also see an estimated loss of $87,500 in program application fees. But the budget committee only deals with the financial impact — a bill draft request eliminating the program has been requested, but not yet been introduced so far this session.

So why the request to wind down the program? According to the Governor’s Office of Energy, which administers the program, adoption of the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code (model building codes adopted by many states for minimum design and construction standards related to energy efficiency) led the state to reassess the efficacy of the abatement program.

In a statement, GOE Director David Bobzien said the agency contracted with a third party to evaluate the relationship of the minimum energy efficiency required under the rating systems and the newly adopted building standards — finding that the minimum standards now exceeded the state requirements for the abatement program.

“The continuance of the GBTA program will allow property owners to receive a partial property tax abatement for building to the minimum standard already adopted in the state, which no longer aligns with the intent of the program as initially established in (state law),” he said in an emailed statement.

Current beneficiaries won’t be affected by the program ending, as approved buildings receive through the program a partial property tax abatement ranging from 25 to 35 percent for a period of either 5 or 10 years. Established during a 2005 special session, the abatement program made headlines in 2007 after it was partially blamed for contributing to a substantial education funding deficit in part caused by losses in local school support taxes (one analysis estimated that the original version of the abatement program would have seen Clark County lose up to 10 percent of its tax base and close to $1 billion in lost revenue over the two-year state budget cycle).

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Power Play: How Southwest Gas beat back efforts by environmentalists to start moving Nevada away from natural gas

In early 2021, with the legislative session only a few weeks away, Scott Leedom, the director of public affairs for Southwest Gas, reached out to the city of Mesquite with two requests for Mayor Al Litman. 

One was to speak at a virtual employee event extolling the benefits of natural gas, according to emails obtained by the Climate Investigations Center, a fossil fuel watchdog group. The second request was to review a draft letter that a pro-gas coalition of business and labor groups, organized by the company, was planning to send to Gov. Steve Sisolak. 

Mesquite was no stranger to Nevada’s largest natural gas utility — in 2018, the state’s Public Utilities Commission authorized the company to expand service to the rural community, leading to the installation of 28 miles of natural gas pipeline serving hundreds of residential homes and businesses. Litman called it a “game-changer for Mesquite” at the time, and in an interview, he said natural gas was important for economic development. Companies wanted natural gas. 

“We worked closely with them,” he said of the utility. “They’ve been a great partner to work with. To see it go the opposite direction before it really got underfoot, it’d be a disaster in our city.”

A final version of that letter, obtained through a public records request filed by The Nevada Independent, was finally sent to the Democratic governor on Feb. 21. It was signed by Litman, the mayor of Elko, six chambers of commerce, 17 trade groups and two unions (though one of the unions, IBEW Local 1245, said it was mistakenly included as a signatory).

Over six pages, the letter advocated for continued use of the fossil fuel, and raised concerns about Sisolak’s recently adopted climate strategy, which emphasized the need to plan for a transition away from natural gas to meet the state’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The letter, and the groundwork that went into crafting it, reflect the gas utility’s full-court press attempt to push back against legislation — and broader policy efforts by the Sisolak administration — aimed at transitioning from natural gas to electric appliances in buildings. 

Their efforts, so far, have worked.

In late March, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) introduced legislation (AB380), modeled after Sisolak’s climate strategy, requiring gas utilities to go through a more rigorous planning process before expanding their infrastructure. But the bill, backed by environmental groups, met a groundswell of opposition and skepticism from lawmakers in both parties. It failed to advance past a legislative committee deadline and died weeks after it was introduced.

The utility didn’t get everything it wanted. A bill proposed by Southwest Gas and carried by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro also died by that first committee deadline on April 11. The legislation (SB296) would have allowed the gas utility to replace thousands of miles of pipelines, a program that environmentalists said would cost billions and undermine the state’s efforts to address climate change.

Although Democratic lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a 2050 net-zero emissions goal two years ago, the two pieces of legislation — and the debates around them — show that tensions remain in the party (which controls both the legislative and executive branches) over how to best move forward on facilitating a transition toward decarbonization.

Those tensions were exploited by Southwest Gas, which entered the 2021 Legislature knowing it was in for a fight. Beyond solidifying rural support in Mesquite and Spring Creek, a community outside Elko, Southwest Gas upped campaign contributions, built an influential coalition with affiliated interest groups and doubled its lobbying team.

Natural gas interests also made public shows of charity to minority legislative caucuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and helped orchestrate a well-coordinated media campaign defining AB380 as banning “natural gas appliances in homes and business” — a characterization that the bill’s drafters dispute.

Similar battles are playing out in statehouses across the country. As local governments have pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions, utilities like Southwest Gas have lobbied state lawmakers to preempt those efforts. Last year, Arizona Gov. Doug Doucey signed legislation, backed by Southwest Gas, prohibiting local governments from banning gas in new buildings.

Sisolak’s office did not take a position on the legislative efforts, when asked by The Nevada Independent, and officials from his administration testified in neutral on the bill. But on Friday evening, Sisolak issued a press release with statements from Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) affirming the state’s commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels. 

“I appreciate the Nevada Legislature’s effort to kickstart the discussion on the issue and I believe further review by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada would be appropriate to continue it,” Sisolak said. “This transition away from carbon is already starting, and it is critical that we take a deeper look and determine how we can protect hardworking families and businesses as it continues.”

For clean energy advocates, the failure to create a planning framework for transitioning away from natural gas marks a missed opportunity for the state to make good on its goals to lower emissions. But advocates and the utility agree on one thing: The issue is not going away. 

“We're going to have to make these changes if we want to meet our goals that the state has already put out there,” Cohen said in an interview after the bill died. “If we're going to get to clean power and zero greenhouse gas emissions, we're going to have to do something.”

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) at the Nevada Legislature on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Legislation from the state’s climate plan 

The legislation that would be introduced as AB380 made its public debut with an op-ed in The Nevada Independent on Feb. 9. Cohen, a soft-spoken Henderson Democrat in her fourth term in the Assembly, published the opinion piece arguing that an orderly transition away from natural gas would save ratepayers money and protect public health. 

It outlined broad plans for what would eventually become AB380 — requiring the natural gas utility file plans every three years with the state’s Public Utilities Commission to “prove that their spending plans will keep the gas system affordable and safe in a future where we use more electricity and less gas for our heating and cooking needs.”

Lauded at the time by fellow legislative and other high-ranking Democrats, the proposal was largely taken from the Sisolak administration’s climate strategy, a high-level document outlining pathways to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. The legislation received backing from major environmental groups, including the Nevada Conservation League and Natural Resources Defense Council.

In one of its 17 core policies, the climate report calls for phasing out natural gas hookups in homes and businesses over the next three decades. To do so, the report calls on policymakers to plan for transition by scrutinizing new gas infrastructure, to consider requiring all-electric in new buildings and to give customers more choice to switch from gas to electric appliances.

“While Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating,” the report states.

Such a shift would mark a departure from the state’s relationship with Southwest Gas, the investor-owned utility which has served Las Vegas and Southern Nevada since 1954. The state’s laws, environmental advocates argue, currently favor the use of natural gas appliances.

Although only a handful of municipalities (led by Berkeley, California) have taken the full step of instituting a ban on natural gas hookups and requiring electrification in new construction, many others are considering ways to plan for a future with less natural gas.

In the weeks after AB380 was introduced, environmental advocates said that acting now was necessary to avoid continued build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure, keeping the state reliant on natural gas and ratepayers on the hook for the bill. 

“Responsible planning is making sure our gas utilities are spending ratepayer money wisely rather than spending customer money on construction projects that raise rates without being good ideas for the future,” said Dylan Sullivan, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Right now, even the most well-intentioned gas utility has a financial incentive to continue with old practices because they get money...by putting pipes in the ground," he added.

Construction on a Southwest Gas pipeline at a new home development in Las Vegas on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The gas utility’s legislative push

At the same time environmental advocates were working on writing AB380, Southwest Gas was circulating its own legislative proposal to create a statutory pipeline replacement program.

The utility’s proposal, similar to legislation that it tried to pass in 2019, would have allowed Southwest Gas to replace about 6,000 miles of vintage steel and plastic pipe, Leedom said in an interview earlier this month.

The company and a federal regulator, Leedom said, had identified the pipe materials as facing safety issues in high heat and acidic soils. Leedom said a program, in statute, was necessary to “proactively remove” older pipelines and replace them with newer infrastructure. 

To introduce its legislative proposal, Southwest Gas found one of the most powerful sponsors in the legislative building: the Senate majority leader. One day before Cohen introduced AB380, Cannizzaro introduced SB296, which included the utility’s pipeline replacement program. 

In the 2020 election cycle, Southwest Gas contributed $7,000 directly to Cannizzaro and $22,500 to her leadership PAC, while not donating to her Republican opponent, April Becker. 

“There's an important conversation about long-term planning for gas resources happening in the Assembly, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that turns out," Cannizzaro said in a statement  after the bill was introduced. "We want to be sure that any action we take provides Nevadans with safe, reliable infrastructure and aligns (with) state climate goals."

For environmental advocates, the utility’s pipeline replacement proposal underscored the need to more closely watch how Southwest Gas spent ratepayer money on infrastructure. Where the utility saw a program to enhance safety, environmental groups saw a bill that allowed a utility to double-down on fossil fuel infrastructure with little oversight. 

They said the utility should have the ability to fix leaky and unsafe pipes, but that it should be done on a case-by-case basis, considering the cost to customers. In December, Arizona’s elected utilities commission rejected a similar Southwest Gas proposal over concerns related to cost. 

“It's hard to imagine that bill being a top priority in a legislative session that is focused on the economic hardship of the past year,” Sullivan said in March. “This isn't the right time for a $3.7 billion giveaway to Southwest Gas because customers can't afford to pick up the bill."

Leedom rejected arguments that the investment in new infrastructure was unnecessary. 

“It’s not to harden the infrastructure,” he said. “It’s to address the safety concern, and it’s to enhance the safety and reliability to the benefit of our entire customer base.”

Both bills were the culmination of lobbying — the gas utility on one side and environmental groups on the other — that had been going on for months, and their fate foreshadows the tensions the state faces in implementing some elements of its climate strategy. 

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro speaks with the media inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Framing a planning process as a ban 

As state officials have looked at ways to meet Nevada’s 2050 climate goal, Southwest Gas has taken an active approach in working to influence the state’s policy efforts.

Before the Sisolak administration released the climate report in December, an inter-agency team working to draft the strategy held a listening session on “green buildings.” When the topic of natural gas came up, it became clear that the utility had no intention of sitting on the sidelines.

Leedom cast policies that move away from gas in buildings as “premature and problematic.” Two of the utility’s staunch defenders, AARP Nevada and the Latin Chamber of Commerce, also spoke out against such proposals, citing the outsized impact it could have on jobs, low-income ratepayers and seniors on fixed incomes. 

The utility has argued that its infrastructure could be part of the solution, touting its efforts to move toward low-carbon fuels, including “renewable natural gas,” and other alternatives that could offset its carbon footprint. Southwest Gas takes issue with the climate strategy — and AB380’s — approach, which is to move toward electrifying appliances in homes and businesses. 

He said the company has hired a third-party to “outline what that pathway to netzero looks like for us.”

To push back, Southwest Gas borrowed a playbook that utilities have used in other states: building a coalition of business interests casting the fossil fuel as affordable and “clean,” despite the fact that a state fact-sheet notes that gas appliances can pollute indoor air quality.

Where AB380 looked to institute a planning framework, the utility reframed it as a ban.

Danny Thompson — the former head of the Nevada AFL-CIO and a lobbyist hired by Southwest Gas this session — published an op-ed in The Nevada Independent in mid-February, writing that AB380 would kill jobs, raise costs and put more strain on the electric grid.

A few days later, Latin Chamber of Commerce President Peter Guzman (whose organization lists Southwest Gas as a major sponsor) published an op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun indirectly calling Cohen’s proposal a risky action that “will make our economy and the burden to businesses and families even worse.”

“Forcing abuelo and abuela to make a choice between medicine and groceries or heating their home affordably in the winter is unacceptable,” he wrote.

Behind the scenes, Southwest Gas was engaged in a lobbying campaign aimed at driving opinion against Cohen’s bill and solidifying its business footing in the state.

Lobbyist registration records show the utility went from three registered lobbyists in 2017 and five in 2019 to 10 in the 2021 session. Four of those are with the firm of Greenberg Traurig, including former state Senate Democratic Caucus leader Alisa Nave-Worth. Two are longtime labor lobbyists — Thompson and Gail Tuzzolo.

Cohen, the bill’s sponsor, said the “sizable push in lobbying” became more noticeable as the session went on, even while she and advocates for the bill were actively working with the opposition to try to address any concerns with the concepts in the bill.

Even before the legislative session, Southwest Gas and other allies in the natural gas and petroleum industry were working to make inroads with lawmakers.

Last year, lobbyists representing the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) — a nonprofit trade association representing the petroleum industry in six western states — donated thousands of dollars worth of gift cards to both the Nevada Black Legislative Caucus and Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus to be distributed for help with COVID-19 relief efforts undertaken by lawmakers.

Southwest Gas, along with the WSPA, were invited to give presentations to both caucuses early in the legislative session. 

Heads of both of those caucuses — Assembly members Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) and Daniele Monroe Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) — strenuously denied that the assistance had any effect on the eventual fate of AB380 or other natural gas legislation. 

Donations made by the trade group benefited a grocery delivery service for COVID-19 positive individuals arranged by the Hispanic Legislative Caucus, and those made to the Black caucus helped purchase personal protective equipment and food at a senior living facility.

“Western States Petroleum helped us, local grocery stores helped us, churches helped us, nonprofits helped us,” Monroe Moreno said. “So if they want to draw a line, there’s going to be a whole bunch of lines drawn. There was a lot of need that was going on, and they were one of the companies that stepped up.”

In March, Southwest Gas and allies set up an advocacy Facebook page called the Coalition for Cleaner Affordable Energy calling for lawmakers and the public to oppose AB380. Though the group hasn’t run any ads, the page includes video testimonials from homebuilders, business groups (including the Latin Chamber) and union representatives (including Thompson).

Cohen said that the utility’s messaging was inaccurate, but nonetheless struck a chord with members of the public, lawmakers and interest groups concerned about potentially losing natural gas access or stoves in their own homes.

“For all those people who call and say ‘What's going on?’ and I can respond to it, I can't respond to everyone who's been to a website and gets incorrect information, and have the conversation to put them at ease,” she said. “So it definitely is difficult to respond to that when there is fear that is fueled by incorrect information.”

A Southwest Gas technician makes a service call in Las Vegas on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

One hearing, many revisions

The final version of what was to become AB380 underwent several changes before it was ever heard in a legislative committee on April 6. 

An initial version of the bill obtained by The Nevada Independent had three main components. It repealed a section of state law authorizing the expansion of natural gas infrastructure if it related to economic development, required the utility to submit an infrastructure plan to regulators that weighed decarbonization and set a state policy to gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions from “combustible fuels” to 95 percent of 2016 levels by 2050.

After feedback from Southwest Gas and other groups, a conceptual, final amendment removed all references to the gradual emission reduction targets and many of the specific requirements for plans required to be filed with the PUC. Still, the legislation required the utility to undergo a comprehensive planning process meant to prepare for a future where more appliances got their energy from the electrical grid, not gas pipelines. 

The final version of the legislation also sought to address equity concerns. It would have required regulators to investigate “strategies to limit the impact of a transition from the use of gas in buildings on low income households and historically underserved communities, including, without limitation, such persons who rent or lease their residence.”  

“We did a lot of work with the stakeholders, the gas utility, labor, and there were lots of meetings,” Cohen said. “We substantially amended the bill, taking their concerns in mind, things that we didn't necessarily think said or would do what they said they were concerned with, but we still took it out and made modifications. They still were against it.”

Even as amended, Leedom said “the bill was not a neutral natural gas study or planning bill.” He argued that the legislation pre-supposed that electrification was the best approach forward. 

During a more than two-hour hearing before the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month, lawmakers raised concerns about the amended version of AB380, echoing many of the arguments made by the natural gas utility and the coalition opposing the bill. 

The coalition had repeatedly argued that the effects of AB380 would disproportionately affect communities of colors, seniors and low-income households.

At the hearing, Southwest Gas CEO John Hester said the utility is “fully supportive of taking efforts in energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we are also very concerned about the needs of our customers here in Nevada.”

Environmentalists and AB380 supporters argue that the pro-gas messaging ignores the health impacts of natural gas, the climate strategy and distorts the bill’s language, which specifically sought to ensure that there was an equitable transition for low-income households.

“It is absurd that they are weaponizing equity amidst a climate crisis,” Elspeth DiMarzio, an organizer with the Sierra Club, said in an interview last week. “Responsible energy planning was about making sure there was a plan to protect low-income communities down the road.”

Cinthia Moore, an organizer for pro-clean energy group EcoMadres, said the rhetoric at the hearing largely ignored the public health consequences of burning natural gas, noting that Latinos are more likely to suffer asthma attacks than white counterparts.

She said she understood the concerns legislators expressed, “but it’s important to have conversations with our communities about how we are moving away from the usage of natural gas and more toward electric — and it’s going to require a lot of work.” 

“I don’t see it as a ban,” she said of AB380.

Environmental groups also stress the cost of inaction. If there is no planning process in place, the natural gas utility could be permitted to continue expanding, leaving ratepayers on the hook for the costs of more fossil fuel infrastructure, even as the economy moves toward decarbonization. 

This is an argument that won buy-in from the state’ Consumer Advocate, Ernest Figueroa, who works within the attorney general’s office and represents ratepayers before utility regulators. 

“If the policy of the state, as outlined in the governor’s climate initiative, is to eventually transition away from the use of natural gas by 2050, then it is imperative, for economic reasons, that natural gas resource planning be implemented so that natural gas utility customers are not left with billions of dollars in stranded assets when that time comes,” he said during the hearing.

The bill was heard just four days before the deadline for first committee passage, and was at one point scheduled for a committee vote, but it was later removed from the agenda. 

In an interview, Monroe Moreno said she “didn’t have the votes to make it out of committee.”

SB296, backed by the gas utility, experienced a similar fate. Cannizzaro’s bill did not even get a committee hearing, a rare occurrence for legislation proposed by leadership.

“Just like so many things in this building, sometimes you can't exactly get to the right policy place,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “There were just a lot of concerns that we couldn't quite...I don't know. So that one didn't make it.”

Cannizzaro was more direct in the press release Sisolak released on Friday evening.

“We are committed to taking action that supports the state’s Climate Strategy and puts us on track to meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals,” she said. “While we simply didn’t have the time for some of these tough, complex discussions this Legislative Session, it’s critical that we look at what the future will bring and prepare ourselves so that no Nevadan is left behind."

Frierson, as the Democratic leader of the Assembly, echoed the sentiment.

“As we know, the pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to our legislative process, making it a difficult environment for robust discussion and debate,” Frierson said in a statement released through Sisolak’s office. “And while some bills related to acting on climate change did not move forward this session, we no less remain committed to addressing the climate crisis and will continue to push Nevada to be a leader in the clean energy economy.

A construction crew works on a Southwest Gas pipeline at a new home development in Las Vegas on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Setting the stage

Litman, the mayor of Mesquite, said he was glad to see AB380 die in committee.

He believes that “natural gas is still the future for our community” and argued that cars are far more polluting. But he also said he recognizes that the issue is not going away anytime soon.

The state, he argued, is simply not ready for the transition contemplated in AB380.

“But it will be back,” he said. “I guarantee you that.”

Leedom said he expected the legislation to come back, too. 

“This isn’t the last time we’ll see electrification policies in the state,” Leedom said in an interview last week. “But again, we stand ready with the state and with other stakeholders to outline what an alternative path to a decarbonized future looks like.”

The Sisolak administration did not take a formal position on AB380, and a spokesperson for the governor said his office did not send a formal response to the pro-gas coalition letter. It was not until Friday evening that Sisolak released a public statement on the legislation.

Still, the administration has continued to stress the long-term need to transition buildings from natural gas. At the hearing for AB380, two state officials noted that AB380 was consistent with the climate strategy and appeared to rebut some of the gas utility’s claims.

The Nevada Climate Initiative also put out a fact-sheet in March, emphasizing the fact that methane gas contributes to global climate change and can cause indoor health problems. 

At the hearing, David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy, said the state is willing to work with the company on alternatives, but he also noted that while there is some potential in low-carbon fuel alternatives like green hydrogen, there are some major limitations.

In past interviews, he has noted the need for a long-term transition toward electric appliances. 

For years, environmental groups have focused on pushing the state’s largest electric utility, NV Energy, to move toward a more renewable portfolio. They are continuing to do so, but they also plan to engage more on natural gas issues, including outside of the Legislature. 

DiMarzio said environmental groups can also do more to educate the public on natural gas. 

“We need to be really clear that natural gas is a fossil fuel,” DiMarzio said. “It is methane. It is bad for the environment. And it is bad for indoor air quality and health. There's a lot of education that needs to be done because natural gas is not natural at all."

Update: This story was updated on April 19, 2021 to include more information. The coalition letter referenced in this story, obtained through a public records request, includes IBEW Local 1245 as a signatory. A representative from IBEW Local 1245 clarified that the union was listed on the coalition letter in error. 

Natural gas legislation looks to implement state climate strategy, faces opposition from utility

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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 year, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s administration released a climate strategy that emphasized the need for a long-term transition away from using natural gas and the need to start planning now.

Much of the state’s efforts around climate change have focused on transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables in how electricity is produced (most of the state’s power still comes from natural gas). But the climate strategy was significant because it singled out another area where natural gas is predominant: It’s still the default option for cooking and heating in homes and businesses. 

In order to meet the state’s statutory goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, the climate strategy said policymakers need to plan out an equitable transition away from indoor natural gas by scrutinizing new utility infrastructure, giving customers a choice to switch to electric appliances and giving utility regulators more oversight over the planning process. 

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) is sponsoring a bill, AB380, that aims to do that. At its core, the legislation would require gas utilities to go through a comprehensive planning process meant to consider the effects of decarbonization on their operations and ratepayers.

The legislation also directs state utility regulators to compile one or more reports on the role of gas utilities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, how to ensure a safe and reliable grid with fewer customers paying for the system and strategies to ensure that the transition is equitable.

On Tuesday afternoon, the legislation got its first public airing in a hearing that stretched on for more than two hours. Supporters of the bill, including the Nevada Conservation League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, argue that planning for a long-term transition from natural gas is a necessary and common sense approach. Without planning today, they argued, ratepayers could be saddled with paying off unnecessary gas infrastructure for years to come.

Consumer Advocate Ernest Figueroa, who represents ratepayers in proceedings before utility regulators, said in testimony that he supported the legislation and agreed with that assessment. 

If it’s the state’s policy to transition from natural gas by 2050, Figueroa said “it is imperative for economic reasons that natural gas resource planning be implemented so that natural gas utility customers are not left with billions of dollars in stranded assets when that time comes.”

None of this is happening in a vacuum. Policymakers from cities and states across the country have increasingly looked at indoor gas use with more scrutiny as they address climate change. And the efforts have come up against opposition from utilities and an industry that says it wants to be part of the solution, as it makes the case for continued — and in some cases expanded — natural gas use, arguing that switching to electric will be more costly. 

On Tuesday, Southwest Gas, the state’s largest gas utility, testified in opposition. 

CEO John Hester noted that the utility, with expansions in Mesquite and Spring Creek, supports economic development and argued that the company is already highly regulated. Hester said the utility is “fully supportive of taking efforts in energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we are also very concerned about the needs of our customers here in Nevada.”

NV Energy, which supplies natural gas to buildings in Northern Nevada, also came out against the bill. CEO Doug Cannon said the utility, which stands to gain from electrification, supports the concept of a gas planning process, but he said it should not be tied to specific policy outcomes.

For months, Southwest Gas has deployed a full-court press lobbying strategy, building a coalition with concerns about strategies mentioned in the state climate plan and AB380. 

In February, the utility helped organize a coalition letter to the governor’s office with the header “Clean. Affordable. Natural Gas.” Last week, a new group, the Coalition for Cleaner Affordable Energy, began posting videos from business groups campaigning against the legislation. Many of the business groups featured in the videos testified against the bill at Tuesday’s hearing.

Southwest Gas is advocating for its own legislation, SB296, which would allow gas utilities to apply with state regulators to replace existing infrastructure and recover costs through a monthly rate. Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) introduced the proposal in March.

David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy, and Kristen Averyt, the state’s climate policy coordinator, testified in neutral on the legislation. But both officials noted that the climate plan calls for a transition away from natural gas that will require a planning process.

“The intent of AB380 is consistent with the state climate strategy in that it addresses the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas in order to meet our state’s 2050 net-zero emissions target,” Averyt said.

At the hearing, lawmakers from both parties expressed major questions about the impact of AB380, raising concerns about costs and higher rates for low-income households. For about an hour, lawmakers on the Assembly Committee for Growth and Infrastructure questioned the bill sponsors with concerns that AB380 could disrupt reliability and have a disproportionate impact on low-income households, seniors on fixed incomes and underserved communities. 

The legislation’s sponsors noted the costs of inaction and said that the proposed bill language asks state utility regulators to investigate “strategies to limit the impact of a transition from the use of gas in buildings on low income households and historically underserved communities, including, without limitation, such persons who rent or lease their residence.” 

We’ll be writing more about natural gas and lobbying efforts over the next few weeks.

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


THE LEGISLATURE

Water authority looks for a turf removal law: Toward the end of a long committee hearing on two controversial state-backed water bills Monday, the Southern Nevada Water Authority made some big news. The authority testified in neutral on AB356, one of the bills being pushed by the Nevada Division of Water Resources, and then went on to propose an alternative:

  • The proposed bill, AB356, seeks to establish a conservation credit program that state water officials argue would create an incentive to use less water. But the bill faces broad opposition from agricultural interests and conservationists who are concerned that such a program is out of step with how water is managed on-the-ground and could potentially lead to speculative behavior. Enter the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
  • After lawmakers heard opposition to AB356, a water authority lobbyist, Andy Belanger, asked the committee to consider an amendment to the bill or separate legislation for its own conservation initiative. The water authority, for weeks, has indicated that it was seeking a legislative vehicle to remove unused turf by the end of 2026. 
  • Across the Las Vegas Valley, there are about 5,000 acres of non-functional turf — grass that is decorative and used for landscaping in medians, along sidewalks or in entryways to communities. “It is purely for show,” Belanger said. “And it is a luxury our community can no longer afford.” Non-functional turf is a leading driver of water use across the Las Vegas Valley, and while the water authority has long offered incentives to remove grass at residences, it has run into some opposition with HOA boards and other hold-outs. 
  • Backing from groups: The water authority’s push yesterday came with buy-in from key groups. The Vegas Chamber, the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association, the city of Henderson and the city of North Las Vegas all backed the water authority’s proposal at the hearing. And shortly after the hearing ended, the Center for Biological Diversity put out a statement in favor of the water authority’s proposal. 

Farmers, conservationists criticize water banking bill: The AP’s Sam Metz has an update on another bill (AB354), which the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources heard Monday. Rural water users, agricultural interests and conservationists expressed concerns that a bill to create “water banks” had not been fully vetted and could lead to unintended consequences. 

Closing the classic car loophole: My colleague Jannelle Calderon offers an update on efforts to fix a loophole in the state’s Emissions Inspection System that allows drivers to register a car as “classic,” evading smog emission standards, even when it is not in fact a “classic” car. 

A good roundup from KNPR’s Heidi Kyser on what to watch in the Legislature. 

Couldn’t drag me away: My colleague Riley Snyder found that of all the proposed legislation in Carson City, a resolution on wild horses has generated the most opinions (by quite a bit).


WATER AND LAND

Colorado River cutbacks: Excellent reporting by The Arizona Republic’s Ian James on how hydrology in the Colorado River, driven by climate change, is setting the stage for mandatory cuts. The story explains what the cutbacks will mean, and it is a must-read for understanding the road ahead on the Colorado River. From the article: “Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river, has declined dramatically over the past two decades and now stands at just 40% of its full capacity. This summer, it’s projected to fall to the lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam. The reservoir near Las Vegas is approaching a threshold that is expected to trigger a first-ever shortage declaration by the federal government for next year, leading to substantial cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.”

Great piece from Aspen Public Radio on the role that soil moisture plays in water supply. 

'Mediocre' water year wraps up for Tahoe, Truckee basins (via the RGJ’s Amy Alonzo)

Nevada facilities to get Interior funding: “One of several investment projects in Nevada will be $5 million to modernize infrastructure at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and improve access to drinking water for visitors, concessioners and employees,” Jeniffer Solis writes for the Nevada Current. Because of declining reservoir levels on Lake Mead, the project will relocate the Callville Bay water intake barge and also improve service roads to the new site.

Greater sage-grouse declines: A comprehensive USGS report shows significant declines in Greater sage-grouse populations over the past six decades and a nearly 40 percent population decrease since 2002. Last week, a federal judge struck down a project to allow more grazing in an area identified as high-quality sage-grouse habitat, the AP’s Scott Sonner reported. 

Behind the Bar: Education investments pay off, apprehension on gas stoves and federal stimulus dollars come to Nevada

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

This week, the secretary of state says she still hasn’t found any examples of widespread voter fraud, apprehension is expressed by certain Democratic lawmakers on banning gas stoves and we have results from some high-profile K-12 education initiatives.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


A mere 42 days ago, former President Donald Trump signed the $900 billion Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) into law, the second large federal stimulus bill designed to continue funding and deal with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

You’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten about that piece of news, given the avalanche of other news that happened throughout the last four weeks. Plus, the efforts by the Biden administration to pass the president’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package this week have slightly overshadowed the prior and relatively modest $900 billion stimulus (This is a joke; please don’t email me about this).

But federal stimulus and grants to states aren’t a magic money printer — it takes weeks to months for federal agencies to set up program guidelines, acceptable spending areas and actually disburse the money to individual states.

That’s why the state’s Interim Finance Committee is meeting this Monday, and is set to accept more than $633 million in federal grant dollars from the federal CRRSA bill to go toward emergency rental assistance and education spending. 

Usually, the IFC meets between legislative sessions — hence the “Interim” part of the name. But the committee did not have enough time before session to approve the spending (again, because of the delay between the federal legislation being signed and all the administrative processes that subsequently play out before the dollars can be transferred and spent).

The allocated federal dollars include:

  • $124.8 million for emergency rental assistance
  • $31.3 million for the Education Stabilization Fund Program, which supports public, charter and non-public (private and parochial) schools in efforts to “support activities related to safely reopening schools, continuing instruction, and addressing learning loss, including educational technology and reimbursement for COVID-19 related costs”
  • $477.3 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, which goes to public and charter schools for emergency COVID-19 relief. Expected benefits include improving remote learning, technological capacity and access, and preparing to return to “more normal operation.”

Expect a lot of rah-rah-ing and good vibes from this meeting, given the massive budget cuts lawmakers approved over the summer and the slow-drip of other cuts being presented during budget committees. (Members of IFC got to play Santa and approve allocations of CARES Act money over the past year, though they used up the remainder of the funding in December.)

I’m also keeping tabs on the Monday evening meeting of the Ways and Means committee, which as of Friday has nothing on the agenda save a helpful note to expect “BDR INTRODUCTIONS” (BDR = Bill Draft Request)

Legislative leadership has been tight-lipped about what to expect on Monday, but anytime there is an evening hearing scheduled in what is normally the legislative doldrums of early February, it's worth noting.

— Riley Snyder

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Education investments pay off

A new report appears to confirm what some school funding advocates have preached all along — that investments in K-12 education pay dividends in student achievement.

The Nevada Department of Education recently released a report conducted by Data Insight Partners that suggests the state’s investment in early literacy translated to higher test scores. The major investments began during former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tenure and include the following:

  • Full-day kindergarten ($41 million to $96 million per year from 2015 to 2017)
  • Class size reduction ($147 million to $189 million per year from 2015 to 2019)
  • Zoom program ($25 million per year from 2013 to 2014 and $50 million from 2015 to 2019)
  • Victory program ($25 million per year from 2016 to 2019)
  • Read by Grade 3 program ($4.9 million to $22.3 million per year from 2016 to 2019)

In 2009, Nevada’s fourth-graders performed about a year behind their peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, according to the report. But a decade later — when the first cohort of students exposed to the full early literacy investments took the same test — they performed on par with their peers across the nation.

Additionally, Nevada emerged as one of the fastest-improving states in terms of academic achievement.

None of this came as a surprise to Felicia Ortiz, president of the State Board of Education, when the governing body heard the presentation late last month. But the good news also sparked concern about whether the trend would continue given the state’s transition to a new K-12 funding formula. The Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — approved by lawmakers at the very end of the 2019 legislative session — moves away from those categorical funding programs in favor of weighted funding for certain student groups with extra needs.

“The new funding formula does not have the same guardrails,” she said. “It does not require the school to spend that money on these research-proven programs.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposed budget has earmarked specific money amounts for some of the existing categorical programs, such as Zoom and Victory schools, which help students learning English as a second language or those living in low-income households. But that funding would be converted to a weight as the new funding formula is implemented.

The concern echoed by Ortiz and others in the education sphere is that the new funding formula doesn’t spell out how those weighted dollars must be used. To that end, Ortiz said she will be vocal during this legislative session about calling for a tweak to the law. She wants it to include a “menu of options” that describe the type of academic initiatives, such as launching tutoring programs or hiring a reading strategist, the money can go toward.

“I think there’s (a) compromise,” she said. “I think they can do the same thing — put those same guardrails in place.”

— Jackie Valley 

Not gas stoves!

Ask just about any elected Nevada Democrat, and he or she will generally agree it’s important the state take immediate steps to address climate change.

But for Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas), a proposed climate-friendly step to transition away from commercial and residential use of gas-powered stoves is a step too far.

"I'm not giving up my gas stove just yet, okay?” Monroe-Moreno said with a laugh during an Assembly Growth and Infrastructure committee meeting on Thursday. “I love my gas stove. So let's tell families that may be listening ... what we can do better on our every day things to help us get closer to [our goals]." 

Her comments followed a suggestion to move away from use of natural gas in commercial and residential buildings made during a presentation by state climate policy coordinator, Kristen Averyt, who discussed research showing that indoor gas stoves compromise air quality and lead to poor health outcomes such as higher asthma rates.

But the instant reaction to potentially losing a beloved gas stove highlights the tightrope that Democratic lawmakers will have to walk when addressing climate change — determining the tradeoff in policies that may reduce carbon emissions but also interfere with everyday life.

Monroe-Moreno, whose hobbies include cooking and spoiling her grandchildren, said banning gas stoves might also come with unintended consequences and could place undue burdens on families.

Her concerns are illustrative of a larger problem that lawmakers are grappling with in determining how to implement the statewide climate strategy, where prohibitive costs and lack of options hinder the transition away from the use of gas stoves.

“I hear you about your stove. Certainly, the members of this effort have our own relationships with gas in our personal lives,” Director of the Nevada Governor's Office of Energy David Bobzien said.

He added that the state will have to navigate a long-term transition strategy and consider cost and investment questions when developing solutions that will help the state reach its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Whether the state moves forward on legislation transitioning away from gas stoves, hope remains that the Democratic assemblywoman who campaigned as "one tough cookie" during the 2016 election will once again bring cookies for constituents, lobbyists and other lawmakers once the Legislature reopens to the public.

— Tabitha Mueller

Secretary of State: Still no evidence of large-scale voter fraud

Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s first appearance before state lawmakers since the state’s contentious 2020 election was relatively smooth.

In spite of some pointed question by Republicans (and a call to arms from the Nevada Republican Party) during the joint Assembly and Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee meeting on Thursday, Cegavske and top elections deputy Mark Wlaschin largely avoided any contentious back-and-forths of the kind that have befallen election officials in other states.

Though the hearing was intended as an agency overview, Cegavske repeated publicly what she has said amid an onslaught of unsubstantiated claims made by former President Trump’s campaign — that there is no evidence of massive voter fraud in the state’s 2020 election.

“As I have stated on numerous occasions, we take every election integrity violation and complaint seriously, and investigate all allegations,” Cegavske, a Republican, said during the hearing. “But to this day, we have seen no evidence of widespread voter fraud or voting machine errors in Nevada.”

Still, it’s expected that plenty of proposed changes to Nevada’s election system will come up during the legislative session — Wlaschin said during the presentation that the office had counted at least 27 different bill draft requests affecting elections proposed for this session alone.

Perhaps the most significant change being sought by the office is the long-awaited transition to a top-down voter registration system — defined as a “single, central platform at the state level that connected to terminals in local jurisdictions.” Nevada is one of just a handful of states that uses a “bottom-up” system, meaning that local election officials maintain their own systems for voter registration and transmit the data on a daily basis to the state.

Such a change has long been sought by the secretary of state’s office, as it would greatly simplify issues with maintaining and cleaning voter rolls. Wlaschin said funding for the transition would come from federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) grant dollars; the state received $4.28 million in HAVA grant funds in 2018 and $4.8 million in 2020.

Wlaschin said the next step is for the office to develop a request for proposal and begin assessing whether the new top-down system should be implemented using an “off-the-shelf” software product, something developed internally or some kind of hybrid. But he cautioned that in talking with other states that made the transition, election officials said that Nevada should not “rush the process” and expect the transition to take a few years, meaning it won’t be in place for the next election cycle.

“This is something that unfortunately is not going to be quick,” Wlaschin said, saying the office’s rough goal was to have the new system in place for either the 2024 or 2026 election cycles.

Wlaschin also said that the office had seen “record attempts by domestic and foreign actors to disrupt our websites and services” during the months leading up to the 2020 election, while stressing that attacks focused on the public-facing website and not any voter machines, which are not connected to the Internet. He said that over a three month period, the office detected more than 5,800 “malicious actions” such as DDoS attacks, “Bad Bots,” illegal resource access targeting the website and online services for voters.

The office also saw a jump in website traffic to silvestateelection.com, the forward-facing data output of vote totals used during primary and general elections. In 2020, the website had more than 2.6 million page views and nearly 669,000 users during election week, with traffic peaking two days after Election Day (Nevada wasn’t called for President Biden until Friday morning).

In the 2016 election, the website saw much less traffic; about 620,000 page views and 118,500 users through election week.

— Riley Snyder

Senate Minority Leader James A. Settelmeyer, left, and Senator Joe Hardy on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

There’s now national attention on the proposal by Blockchains LLC to allow businesses to form their own self-governing “county-within-a-county” local government. Our original story.

Our latest Freshman Orientation on Republican Sen. Carrie Buck.

Buck, plus Assembly Democratic members Edgar Flores, Selena Torres and Shannon Bilbrary-Axelrod, are speaking at a Teach for America panel on Feb. 17.

A nice gesture by the Assembly Republicans to honor Speaker Jason Frierson on Rosa Parks’ birthday during Black History Month. I was in chambers at the time and Frierson did seem surprised, at least by the plaque that they gave him.

Legendary legislative and statehouse reporter Cy Ryan has passed away. The Las Vegas Sun, his former paper, had an excellent obituary. The Nevada Appeal, where he worked after the Sun closed their Carson City bureau, also had a nice read on his life.

The head of Nevada’s Equal Rights Commission told lawmakers that employers can’t force their employees to get a COVID vaccine (Nevada Appeal).

The entrance to the COVID-19 testing area inside the legislative parking garage on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 33 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 35 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 113 (May 31, 2021)

Nevada climate strategy outlines framework to phase out natural gas, electrify transportation

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility

The goal is clear: To reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

The challenge is how to get there. 

A plan released this week by state agencies and delivered to Gov. Steve Sisolak on Tuesday outlined Nevada’s first “climate strategy” for zeroing out carbon emissions within the next three decades, what scientists say is an imperative for governments across the country to prevent the worst effects of a warming world — skyrocketing heat, extreme wildfires, limited water supplies. 

The strategy, a lengthy and comprehensive document, represents a significant turning point for a state government that has, for years, touted its record on encouraging renewable energy but has shied away from tackling climate change in a coordinated way. 

“It is about process,” said Kristen Averyt, who led the report’s drafting and is a former president of the Desert Research Institute. “It is about stitching climate action into the state.”

At its core, the report lays out a pathway for Nevada to achieve a cost-effective transition from natural gas and electrify the transportation sector, which is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Although the strategy does not dictate policy to the Legislature, local governments and state regulators, it analyzes and recommends several policies to pursue.

The strategy, Averyt stressed, is a “living document,” meant to set a foundation for future reports and analysis. And it was also meant to set expectations. Averyt acknowledged that the report is different from efforts that other states have taken. It intentionally leans into the challenges and the nuances, many specific to Nevada, that come with reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050.

“We have to get to zero emissions,” Averyt said. “Nothing is off the table.”

“We just have to be smart about how we do it,” she added.

For the 17 core policies analyzed in the report, the state established a framework that looked at each recommendation using four metrics: a policy’s potential for decreasing emissions, climate justice considerations, economic implications and the legal feasibility of implementing a policy.

Climate activists said the report is a significant step in the state’s efforts on climate action. It is important that there is a strategy, they said. But although the strategy considers climate justice — that marginalized communities are often disproportionately affected by climate impacts and the cost of climate action — activists said more work is needed to adequately center those issues. 

“Everything [the state does] around climate change — or even when we talk about affordable housing and transportation in general — should be looked at from an environmental justice lens,” said Cinthia Moore, a Las Vegas-based organizer with EcoMadres, which represents Latino parents and advocates for clean air. “And that should be the driver of these policies."

The report marks a nearly two-year effort to redirect the state’s focus toward addressing climate change, an effort that began in the 2019 Legislature. During the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that set the state’s first economy-wide emission reduction goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

State officials estimate that, on its current path, Nevada would fall 4 percent short of the goal to decrease total greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025, 19 percent short of cutting emissions 45 percent by 2030 and significantly short of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The 2050 goal is in line with pledges made by other governments and corporations. Although the effort to reduce emissions will require investment, the strategy notes that meeting the emission goals could prevent between $172 and $786 million in economic damages associated with carbon pollution by 2030. Meeting the 2050 goal, the report finds, could prevent billions in damages.

In a statement prepared with the report’s release, Sisolak said climate action must play a role in building back a more “climate-friendly and equitable” economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sisolak, who ordered the report as part of his Nevada Climate Initiative, said it “serves as the critical framework necessary to elevate climate action and foster a healthy, vibrant, climate-resilient future for all Nevadans – especially our most disadvantaged community members who live in the areas experiencing the greatest climate-related health and economic impacts.”

Decarbonization of the electric sector

In reducing economy-wide emissions, decarbonizing the electric sector is the first step.

Emissions from generating electricity — burning coal and natural gas for power — accounted for roughly 32 percent of total economy-wide emissions in 2016, according to an analysis released by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection earlier this year.

That 32 percent share means the electric generation is now the second largest greenhouse gas contributor in Nevada — behind the transportation sector with a 35 percent share of emissions. 

But even though power plants contribute a smaller share of emissions than the transportation sector, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy remains a prerequisite. As with most carbon reduction plans across the globe, Nevada’s strategy rests on electrification. The strategy aims to electrify transportation and make buildings more reliant on electric appliances, rather than gas ones.

That framework puts NV Energy front-and-center. It will require the utility to potentially hasten its transition from a majority fossil-fuel supply to a majority-renewable supply. At the same time, the utility has predicted that its demand will likely increase as other sectors require more electricity.  

In recent years, the state has made progress toward reducing power plant emissions, requiring the closure of coal plants in Southern Nevada and adding massive utility-scale solar projects to the grid. And in November, voters passed a ballot measure, amending the Nevada Constitution, to require utilities to have a supply portfolio of 50 percent renewables by 2030. The constitutional amendment adds more weight to a similar requirement that was unanimously passed by the Legislature last year. 

Still, the strategy recognizes that the electric sector needs to move faster. But how that reduction in emissions is achieved is left open-ended. David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy and helped write the utility-related section of the report, said that was on purpose. 

“Even with our aggressive [renewable portfolio standard], there is water yet uncharted beyond that 50 percent standard,” Bobzien said. “How do we get to 100 percent? It's great that we have the goal there, but we do know that the last 50 percent is going to be complicated.”

On Thursday, NV Energy spokesperson Jennifer Schuricht said in an email that the strategy “provides a framework to examine all sources of carbon emissions and to create solutions that bring meaningful long-term environmental and economic benefits to all Nevadans at affordable prices. We look forward to working with our policymakers as we pursue these opportunities.”

A recent report, commissioned by the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), suggested that the state might need a renewable requirement closer to 80 percent by 2030 to remain on track with its emission goals. But the state’s report did not describe a specific policy, instead leaving open the possibility that policies other than a renewable standard could be used. 

NV Energy, which serves about 90 percent of Nevada’s electricity needs, recently filed a report with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) outlining its net-zero carbon goals. That report stresses the need to diversify its portfolio, build more transmission and manage demand.

The utility’s report suggests that the state might need to move away from a renewable standard in the future and toward other policies aimed more specifically at the grid’s carbon emissions.

In the PUCN filing, the utility said that “in the future, the state's decarbonizing efforts may benefit from a transition away from [renewable portfolio standard] targets in favor of decarbonizing policies to avoid conflict and increase impact across more sectors of the economy.”

NV Energy also warned against policies that entirely eliminate fossil fuel production or policies that limit carbon intensity from existing plants until there were renewable alternatives available.

A transition away from natural gas as the default

Despite transitioning away from coal-fired power plants and adding solar over the past decade, natural gas comprises the majority of NV Energy’s power supply. Simultaneously, natural gas is used in most homes and in commercial buildings for heating and cooking, adding to the state’s carbon footprint. 

A common theme in the report was the need for not only a substantive change but also a shift in thinking around natural gas — a transition away from the default policy of planning to use the fossil fuel well into the future.

The climate strategy specifically calls out a policy that allows utility regulators and NV Energy to use natural gas plants — rather than renewables — as placeholders in planning the utility's long-term supply.

Every three years, NV Energy is required to submit an exhaustive planning documented known as an Integrated Resource Plan. In that plan, natural gas plants that are often used as placeholders in forecasting long-term supply scenarios. The climate strategy suggests that eliminating the policy would improve the ability to plan for an electric grid that more closely reflects the state’s net-zero by 2050 goal.

“[The policy] basically says there are no goals or requirements to phase out fossil fuel reliance," said Cameron Dyer, a clean energy staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates.

“We need to get these natural gas placeholders out of being the vogue,” he added.

The climate strategy also looks at other ways to improve planning and reduce natural gas use, including changing the incentives that guide the utility when it comes to crafting its rates. 

But one of the most significant aspects of the state’s climate strategy is that, for the first time, it points policymakers beyond electricity, calling on them to phase out natural gas in buildings

The climate strategy says that “while Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating.”

Bobzien said he did not expect this to happen overnight. 

"It's important to remember the time-scale contemplated by this framework,” he said. “It's a long-term transition to these technologies or newer homes, and it has to be sensitive to costs.” 

Environmental advocates — and the climate strategy itself — said a preliminary goal would be to ensure that consumers could choose between electric and natural gas.

The report said “a potential first step in a phased transition from gas would be to allow consumers the choice between gas and electric on existing buildings but require all-electric in new construction.

Echoing the climate strategy, Elspeth DiMarzio, an organizer with the Sierra Club, stressed that policymakers must look for ways to prevent the buildout of more natural gas pipelines that would need to be retired before the investments could be paid off.

“If you lock in new gas infrastructure now, we’ll be dealing with the ramifications for the next 30-plus years,” she said, noting that investments are typically paid off in rates. 

Questions about cost and land use

Southwest Gas, the state’s largest natural gas utility, said in a statement that the company was committed to working with the state on climate goals but was concerned about costs. 

“We believe any conversation about the sustainable energy future must consider the cost burden to Nevadans,” Scott Leedom, the utility’s director of public affairs, said in an email.

“Policy-driven electrification shifts the cost to consumers away from one of the lowest monthly utility bills they face, natural gas, to one of the highest, electricity. The voices of those who rely on natural gas to make financial ends meet in homes and businesses must be heard,” he said.

Bobzien, however, noted that electric appliances are steadily evolving to become more efficient and less costly. He pointed to the fact that costs can accelerate quickly with increased demand. 

“History has shown that these cost-curves can accelerate quickly — solar being the perfect example,” Bobzien said (the price of solar has dramatically decreased over the last decade).

Additionally, the climate strategy recommends several other policies to reduce the energy consumption of buildings: appliance efficiency standards, energy codes for net-zero buildings and the expansion of energy efficient and energy-savings contract programs. 

Nat Hodgson, CEO of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, said he supports the goals to reduce carbon emissions, and he was an early backer of energy efficient codes. But he cautioned an approach that could raise costs in a way that were passed down to homebuyers. 

“I'm also the guy you call about housing affordability,” he said. 

Hodgson said new homes are already far more energy-efficient than they were a decade ago. Most homes in Southern Nevada, he said, exceed standards for energy efficiency. 

But Hodgson said housing prices could increase if there were requirements for things like charging stations or specialized outlets to allow for electric appliances in the future. He said the more cost-effective strategy would be to focus funding on retrofitting existing homes. 

“Everything we can do, "he said. “But it comes at a cost. The number one issue is affordability.”

Environmental groups said climate change demands an upfront investment that, with the right mix of incentives and rulemaking, will ultimately benefit the consumer and keep costs down. If new homes are retrofitted for a future that demands electrified buildings, it will pay dividends when there is increased demand for electric appliances. 

“It's not in our head that we're going to flip a switch and do this all in a year and everyone is going to have a fully electric efficient building,” said Dylan Sullivan, a senior policy analyst with NRDC. “It's not going to happen like that. It doesn't make sense for it to happen like that."

He said electric alternatives to gas appliances, including heat pump water heaters, are competitively priced. Sullivan said it just requires a change in thinking about building. He also pushed back on the idea that preparing homes for electric appliances is more costly.

“It's only a sunk cost if you go in and install the gas appliance,” he said. 

And many businesses support climate action. Two days after the strategy was released, the Reno and Sparks Chamber of Commerce held a series panels on the climate strategy that brought in a range of perspectives, from the Nevada Mining Association to the Sierra Club. The chamber’s CEO, Ann Silver, said in an interview that she was supportive of the strategy, noting that there were a lot of things that individuals could do to help reduce emissions. 

“I don't think we should view this as something costly,” Silver said. “To me, it's comparable to wearing a mask. Maybe you are spending $3.99 on a mask, but that’s saving a death."

Silver said businesses want to show that they are acting on climate change, and it’s often demanded by customers. She noted that change does not happen overnight. But when there is a choice to be made — like replacing old light bulbs or replacing a fleet of vehicles — businesses and consumers should consider the climate implications of their actions. 

“I don't think we've done enough to normalize the activities that should occur,” she said.

Beyond economic costs, a massive deployment of renewables to offset natural gas could have significant environmental costs on the landscape and protected habitat for imperiled species, from the Mojave desert tortoise to the Greater sage grouse.

Environmentalists and wilderness advocates said that the climate crisis is a top priority, but they have urged the state to adopt a careful planning approach that avoids causing further environmental damage in pursuing more renewable energy infrastructure. 

Jaina Moan, external affairs director for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, has advocated for siting solar, as much as possible, on previously developed land, like abandoned mines. 

The state’s strategy acknowledges issues around siting renewables, advocating a “smart-from-the-start” approach. Moan hopes to see a continued commitment from the state.

“A commitment and incentives for developing on lower-impact lands are needed,” she said.

Reducing emissions in transportation

As the state phases out natural gas, the strategy emphasizes the need to transition away from fossil fuels in the transportation sector, the leading source of the state's emissions.

To do so, the climate strategy included five policy proposals: the adoption of low- and zero-emissions vehicle standards, a clean truck program, low-carbon fuel standards, a “cash for clunkers” program and ending a loophole that allows car owners to evade emission checks. 

Electrifying the transportation sector was identified as one of the most complex issues facing the state’s decarbonization goal, one that requires buy-in from consumers and an array of state and local governmental agencies responsible for roads and infrastructure.

In addition to adopting electrification policies, the report said the state should also look for ways to manage transportation demand, decreasing the number of miles traveled in personal vehicles and increasing incentives for public transit and telecommuting.

Tackling how cars are used is crucial, the report said, with the number of miles traveled in cars — calculated as Vehicle Miles Traveled — increasing faster than the population.

“If this trend does not change,” the report says, “[emission] targets will be difficult to meet, even with aggressive changes to vehicle efficiency and fuel type, due to turnover rate of vehicles and other transportation-related [greenhouse gas] emissions, such as roadway building and maintenance.”

Despite the headwinds, the report also casts electrifying transportation as an opportunity. 

“Nevada is uniquely poised to capitalize on its unique assets by leveraging growth in the EV sector to become a hub for transportation electrification,” the report said.

The strategy notes that Nevada could play a role in the electric-vehicle supply chain, given the need for more lithium. The country’s only active lithium operation is based outside of Tonopah, and over the past five years, there has been an increase in lithium exploration.

Earlier this year, Nevada started a rulemaking process to adopt low and zero-emission vehicle standards through an initiative known as Clean Cars Nevada. Such standards, adopted in 14 states and modeled after California’s rules, would require car manufacturers to sell low-emission vehicles in Nevada and set credit targets for zero-emission vehicles. 

Andrew MacKay, executive director of the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association and a former chairman of the Nevada Transportation Authority, said he was not surprised by the proposals and said there were some common-sense ideas. He cited closing the “classic car” loophole, which allows newer cars to avoid emission inspections, as one.

But he also said his group would ultimately not support the adoption of emission standards, instead preferring a national standard and letting markets guide electric-vehicle adoption.

“My opinion is this: Let the market work," MacKay said.

Despite disagreements with some of the policy recommendations, MacKay said he wanted to see the state address climate change and was impressed by the breadth of the strategy.

"This is going to result in the drafting of big pieces of legislation, regulatory efforts and the whole nine yards,” MacKay said, noting momentum in state government to take action.

What happens at the state level is only one aspect of climate action. The report comes as large corporations set net-zero goals, demanding a more fuel-efficient and eventually zero-carbon supply chain, and as car manufacturers seek to create new electric products to meet those goals. There is also another big player in the transportation sector: California. 

Paul Enos, who heads the Nevada Trucking Association, said that what California does can have a big effect in Nevada. He said many of his members already have trucks that meet California standards, so regulatory changes in Nevada could have a more minimal effect.

He said the climate strategy’s analysis of a new Clean Trucks Program provided a “honest assessment,” considering the economics and the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The reality is that so many of the trucks that are based here in Nevada, operating here in Nevada, they're already meeting the California standard,” Enos said in an interview.

Many of the big players in the trucking industry are already moving toward reducing their emissions as large corporate end-users look to meet their sustainability goals, Enos said. But any new rules could have a disparate impact on smaller trucking companies. And unlike in California, he said Nevada might not have the ability to offer incentives to smaller players in the industry. He said state regulators should weigh that with any rules they create.

"California can afford to get a lot of things wrong that we can’t afford to do in Nevada,” Enos said. “I worry about the small guys. I worry about the owner-operators.”

Starting a conversation on climate justice

For all of the policies analyzed, the state’s strategy considers climate justice issues as one of the four most primary metrics to guide the state’s action on reducing carbon emissions. 

Averyt, who led the report’s drafting as the head of the Nevada Climate Initiative, said this was a critical part of the report. In the coming months and years, Averyt expects that more information will be added to the strategy and the state will produce additional reports. 

She said climate justice will continue to be used as a metric to analyze policy. 

Across the nation and in Nevada, the effects of climate change often fall disproportionately on marginalized communities, amplifying inequality. More heat in urban areas, for instance, can lead to increased energy demand for cooling among residents who already spend a larger percentage of their income on electricity bills. In other cases, power plants and freeways with high emissions have historically been sited near low-income neighborhoods. 

At the same time, the action needed to address climate change can also disproportionately affect marginalized communities, often least responsible for creating the problem.

Climate justice activists in Nevada are concerned with both issues. They said the report was a starting point, but they hope to see more direct climate justice policies in the future. 

“My initial reaction was that it was a good start, but it was leaving out a lot of policies that I wanted to see discussed,” said Ainslee Archibald, a coordinator for the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition. “I felt it was kind of half of what we needed and half of what we didn’t.”

Early on, the strategy argues that climate action could be a way to correct environmental injustices that occurred in the past and create a more equitable economy moving forward.

“Through climate action, there is the opportunity to reconcile the social justice challenges Nevadans face,” the report said a few paragraphs into the Executive Summary section. 

For Archibald, who is also an organizer for the Sunrise Movement in Las Vegas, that would mean a transition from market-based systems to policies with fewer barriers to access. She said she would like to see more consideration placed on public transit and energy choice, the ability to produce rooftop solar and community solar in a way that is cost-effective. 

Moore, an organizer for EcoMadres and a member of the coalition, echoed these calls. 

“It's great that we are talking about electrification of vehicles and electric infrastructure but we need to think about ways to make these things accessible to everyone,” Moore said.

She said part of what the state should do, moving forward, is ensure more direct outreach to communities rather than conduct public outreach primarily on social media. Doing so, she said, would allow officials to more adequately address climate justice in policy making.

“There is so much work that still needs to be done,” Moore said.

Indy Environment: State releases climate strategy to move toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

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On Tuesday evening, the state released a comprehensive strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. It’s a big deal, marking a year-long effort among state agencies to develop a coordinated pathway for moving toward defined emission-reduction benchmarks.

Without additional policies, Nevada is not on track to meet its climate goals. On the current path, state officials estimate that Nevada would fall 4 percent short of its goal to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025 and 19 percent short of cutting emissions 45 percent by 2030. The state’s long-term goal is to reduce economy-wide emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

The report, a product of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Nevada Climate Initiative, looks at 17 policies that would help move the state toward meeting its goals, which the Legislature established last year. 

I’m working on an in-depth piece about the climate strategy — and what comes next — for this weekend (please send me any thoughts you have about the report). For now, I’ve pulled out a few notable highlights from the report and what I’ve learned in my reporting so far:

It’s a strategy. The report is less of a prescriptive document of exacting recommendations and more of a description of the problems, their complexities and what needs to be done. The first page of the plan’s executive summary makes it clear that the report is intended to be a starting point — a strategy — for the state to achieve net-zero emissions within the next three decades.

Kristen Averyt, the state’s climate policy coordinator, said this was intentional. To propose very specific policies would require additional community engagement and data, she said. Instead, the report takes a broad view (an entire section devoted to analyzing “complex challenges”).

Averyt, who helped author the report, emphasized that it “takes a constellation of policies across different levels of governance to really do what needs to be done for deep decarbonization.”

The strategy identifies 17 policies and analyzes them in detail. Earlier this year, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection released a greenhouse gas inventory with a wide-ranging catalog of policies that could reduce emissions. Many of these policies appear scattered across the report, but the strategy specifically looks at 17 policies — a fusion of regulations, incentives and planning — focused mainly on three sectors: transportation, electricity and buildings. 

Averyt said she expects more policies to be analyzed in the future.

For years, Nevada has worked to develop a clean energy economy, exporting solar power to neighboring states and requiring NV Energy to expand its use of renewables. But the report’s policy recommendations are a recognition that action new policies are needed in other sectors as well. 

“It's important to now look more broadly across the entire economy when we are trying to figure out our pathways to a 2050 goal of net-zero emissions,” said David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy and helped draft the electricity-related sections of the report.

A new focus on transportation and a transition away from natural gas. As a percentage of emissions, transportation is the state’s leading emitter (electric generation is a close second). The report analyzes a slate of policies that include low- and zero-emissions vehicle standards, a clean truck program, low-carbon fuel standards, a “cash for clunkers” program and ending emission inspection loopholes. The report’s policy section also recognizes the need to transition away from natural gas — and limit new investment in infrastructure — in both the electric sector and in buildings. “While Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating,” the report said.

A climate justice lens: Notably, the report analyzed each policy using a framework with four metrics: the potential for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, climate justice considerations, economic implications and the legal feasibility of implementation. That climate justice — recognizing that climate impacts or costs should not disproportionately fall on marginalized communities — was a key metric used in the policy framework is significant, Averyt said, because that framework will inform what future actions the state pursues. The report also recognizes early on that “through climate action, there is the opportunity to reconcile the social justice challenges Nevadans face.” But climate justice advocates on Wednesday said while the report is a start, it still relied heavily on market-mechanisms and did not adequately center aspects of climate justice in its policies.

The scientific assessment. The report includes a scientific analysis, written by top regional climate researchers, of how climate change is affecting Nevada and what models forecast as future risks in the coming years. It might seem small, but having this information in one place is valuable and something that has not existed (at least to my knowledge) for Nevada before now.


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

Climate clues in Great Basin caves: Geochemical data from Great Basin caves paint a scary potential “worst-case scenario” for human-caused climate change. InsideClimateNews’ Judy Fahys looks at paleoclimate data, including research conducted at UNLV, that suggest nature is capable of hot, dry periods that could last thousands of years.

Whitebark pine gets protection: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it planned to propose the whitebark pine, which lives in mountain ranges across Nevada and the West, as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. Climate change is one of the threats that the tree faces. Kurtis Alexander from the San Francisco Chronicle has more

Three solar projects get PUC approval: The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved three large-scale solar projects last week, Andy Colthorpe reports for Energy Storage News. The projects, slated to come online in 2023, will help the utility meet its 1000 MW storage goal.

  • NV Energy filed a report with the utilities commission on zero-carbon emission goals. 

‘Our right to fire:’ The Arizona Republic looked at the battle that Northern California tribes face to control their lands when it comes to fire management. After a fire at Happy Camp, the capital of the Karuk Tribe, “community members also grieve for what they say is the failure of federal and state agencies to accept their deep knowledge and experience in stewarding these lands for more than 10,000 years.” This is a deeply reported, important story from Debra Utacia Krol.

The Mt. Charleston blue butterfly: Bloomberg Law’s Maya Earls reports: “Expansion of a ski area an hour from Las Vegas should be stopped because the Trump Administration failed to take a hard look at its impact on sensitive resources in Nevada, including on the endangered Mount Charleston blue butterfly, an environmental group says in a lawsuit filed in federal court.

Opposition to a solar project: Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis looks at opposition to a massive solar project in the Moapa Valley. The Battle Born Solar Project, which has backing from the Sisolak administration, could conflict with land that’s used for recreation and to draw tourists, residents worry. The project also could conflict with Mojave desert tortoise habitat.

Indy Environment: With Navy pushing to expand onto public land, Cortez Masto introduces an alternative — and reactions are mixed

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For many, the preferred option was no expansion at all. 

That’s the position the Legislature took last year when it passed a bipartisan resolution opposing the U.S. Navy’s proposal to expand the Fallon Range Training Complex on about 600,000 acres of private and federal land across five counties. At a public meeting in Fallon this year, speaker after speaker registered the same opposition: The Navy was asking them to give up too much.

But the Navy remained undeterred in its goal: It wanted to expand its Nevada base. Its current training range of 228,508 acres was not large enough to accommodate modern warfare testing.

To expand its Fallon operation, the Navy must get congressional approval. In June, Congress declined to include the proposal in the National Defense Authorization Act, legislation that sets expenditures for the military. Then in July, the Trump Administration threatened to veto the bill over several issues. The White House “strongly urge[d] Congress” to pass the Fallon expansion.

When it became clear that the Navy proposal could be added to the final legislation, Nevada’s congressional delegation began looking for an alternative. Last week, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto unveiled draft legislation showing what such a compromise might look like. 

Cortez Masto’s draft legislation would transfer about 382,000 acres of federal public land to the military and allow the Navy limited access to train on an additional 247,762 acres of public land. 

To balance the training range expansion, Cortez Masto’s bill draft would add 156,000 acres of conservation areas and designate more than 331,000 acres of wilderness. It also incorporates an earlier proposal, offered by the senator last year, to ban oil and gas in the Ruby Mountains. 

The legislation also includes specific requests made by tribes and rural counties. But provisions in the draft legislation have been met with mixed reactions.

The draft bill requires the Navy to hire three full-time tribal liaisons. It also includes language to preserve about 79,000 acres of federally-managed land for “the protection of traditional cultural and religious sites” for the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe. It requests that roughly 11,000 acres be held in trust for the tribe, land that includes the tribe’s origin site within the Stillwater Range. 

Fallon Paiute Shoshone Chairman Len George told the Sierra Nevada Ally that the tribe was informed of the proposal at the last minute and remains opposed to any expansion. He told the Ally that the tribe has “been against the expansion from day one.” 

Under the proposed legislation, the Walker River Paiute Tribe, which has faced widespread historic contamination from ordinance activities, would receive a $20 million upfront payment from the Navy. The bill would also convey about 9,000 acres of public land to the tribe.

In an opinion piece for Indian Country News, Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres wrote “while this alternative isn’t perfect, it does represent a solution that gives us a voice at the table.”

“The Walker River Paiute Tribe has always believed in the importance of collaboration and the strength of finding a path towards healing,” Torres added. “Moving forward, we will continue to advocate for protections for our cultural and natural resources and sacred sites.”

The bill also directs federal land managers to convey thousands of acres of public land to rural counties, potentially opening up more development. It could also open up more than 100,000 acres of land, currently managed as wilderness, to increased natural resources development. But those provisions, in addition to the base expansion, are a major red flag for some environmentalists.

Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, called provisions in the bill “far-right, anti-public lands stuff” and said they could have consequences beyond the state. His organization plans to oppose the draft legislation and continue pushing Congress for no expansion. 

"This bill either bombs, changes control of, sells, conveys or strips protections from literally one  million acres of public land,” Donnelly said “It's worse than we even could have imagined.”

“We think public lands need to be managed for the preservation of ecosystems,” he added. “And that is compelling and the American people would get behind that.”

Other conservation groups said the bill struck a balance and was an improvement from the Navy's proposal.

In a joint-statement, Jocelyn Torres, an organizer with the Conservation Lands Foundation, and Shaaron Netherton with Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said the senator “has struck the delicate balance among the competing priorities of protecting public lands for important wildlife habitat and cultural values, addressing some Tribal interests and making progress towards remedying historical injustices, and the vital training needs of America’s servicemen and women.”

The legislation also received support from Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who introduced his own alternative earlier this year. He described the legislation as taking a “consensus” approach. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, said in a statement that he appreciated Cortez Masto and Amodei’s congressional efforts “to make sure Nevada's constituents are heard.” 

“My administration has worked closely with the Navy and local stakeholders and I look forward to a resolution that balances the nation's military preparedness needs with fair treatment of the Nevadans harmed by this expansion,” the governor said.

But the fight is far from over, and the legislative language is not set in stone. 

Because the Senate and House have passed the National Defense Authorization Act, any changes must now go before a congressional conference committee, charged with reconciling the differences in the bill. That committee will decide whether or not to include the Navy expansion — and the alternative — before a final vote. But a lot can happen before Congress’ current term ends in January.


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

The Air Force expansion: Democratic Reps. Steven Horsford, Susie Lee and Dina Titus spoke with environmentalists Wednesday on fighting an Air Force proposal to expand a training range into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the contiguous U.S. Earlier this year, Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop attempted to attach language to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have given the military control over much of the refuge. While the Bishop language was struck from the bill, it could still re-emerge in the same conference committee considering the Navy expansion.

Many questions here: My colleague Riley Snyder reported on the state writing off nearly $12 million loans for clean energy projects that were never completed. Read this story. David Bobzien, the state’s current director of the Governor’s Office of Energy, who came to the job long after the loans were issued, said there’s “no evidence that anything was ever actually done with the money.” This raises many questions. What kind of oversight was there? And where did the money go?

‘It’s very distinctive:’ Amy Alonzo with the Reno Gazette Journal wrote an excellent piece on the third largest Joshua tree found in southern Nevada. It is estimated to be about 700 to 800 years old. The Joshua tree could be protected as part of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. 

Sagebrush recovery: Relevant study here. What happens when sagebrush burns in a wildfire? What’s the best way to restore habitat for the wildlife (like Greater sage grouse) that rely on it? A team of researchers tried to answer that question by comparing seeded and planted sagebrush.

When a drought starts over the Pacific Ocean: “Droughts usually evoke visions of cracked earth, withered crops, dried-up rivers and dust storms. But droughts can also form over oceans, and when they then move ashore they are often more intense and longer-lasting than purely land-born dry spells.” Bob Berwyn with InsideClimateNews has more on a new study.

Conservation for climate change: “Restoring natural landscapes damaged by human exploitation can be one of the most effective and cheapest ways to combat the climate crisis while also boosting dwindling wildlife populations, a scientific study finds,” via The Guardian.

Update: This story was updated at 4:02 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15 to correct a section related to changes in protections for land currently managed as wilderness. An original version of the story said the proposed bill would affect grazing. It would not.

Nevada writes off nearly $12 million in federally funded clean energy loans as ‘bad debt’

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

Nearly $12 million in federally funded loans earmarked for clean energy projects in Nevada stemming from the 2009 federal stimulus package were never spent and has been written off as unrecoverable by the state.

Members of the state Board of Examiners — composed of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general — voted on Tuesday to write off more than $11.8 million in bad debt from eight federally funded loans for clean energy projects  owed to the state but deemed uncollectable by the state Controller’s Office, which oversees collections.

It’s a dispirited closing of a chapter on a once highly-touted program funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $831 billion stimulus package signed into law by former President Barack Obama in February 2009 in response to the recession.

The state of Nevada used a portion of those funds to launch the “Fund for Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency and Energy Conservation Loans,” operated by the state Office of Energy and aimed at granting revolving, low-interest loans to clean energy projects. The program was funded with federal dollars through the stimulus bill, with the idea being that qualified entities  repaying the loans would grow the fund and help direct dollars to future clean energy projects in perpetuity.

But out of more than $17.6 million in loans granted through the program, the Office of Energy leadership says that only $3.7 million of that initial sum has been paid back, with $11.8 million considered “bad debt” and written off by the state as of Tuesday. There are five loans — cumulatively worth about $2 million — that are still being actively paid off.

David Bobzien, the director of the Governor’s Office of Energy, said that between 2010 and 2012 the office had issued eight loans spread among five companies for a variety of clean energy projects — including solar photovoltaic units at schools in Washoe County, anaerobic digester systems to convert cow manure to biofuels and a hydrogen fueling station in Carson City.

None of those projects were completed, Bobzien said, and the funds have essentially disappeared.

“(There’s) no evidence that anything was ever actually done with the money,” he said in an interview.

Nevada was initially awarded $34.7 million in federal funds through the stimulus bill for a statewide renewable energy and energy efficiency program, which included updating facilities at state buildings and schools, installing energy efficient traffic signals and street lights, alternative fuel infrastructure and development of the revolving loan fund. 

The loan program is described as a “bridge financing option,” with eligible applicants receiving a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $1 million under loan terms that run for up to 15 years with an interest rate below 3 percent. 

A 2011 memorandum from the Office of Energy submitted to the Legislature said the revolving loan program had been a “success,” saying it helped get “stimulus dollars out to innovative companies and getting jobs on the ground” and helped establish a structure for a program that will “continue to provide financing for innovative energy projects.”

Though the Governor’s Office of Energy touts the use of the program — noting on a fact sheet that 23 projects have been awarded funding worth more than $18 million — though a substantial portion of those dollars were never paid back.

The defaulted loans include:

  • Three anaerobic digester systems on dairy farms in Lyon County to produce biogas. All three loans, worth a total of $4.19 million, were given to a company called Avatar Energy
  • A $1.5 loan to a project with a company called Sunburst Energy for solar PV systems at three schools in Washoe County
  • A $2.2 million loan for solar shading over parking areas in Boulder Village, which was intended to capture solar energy during the day and be stored for onsite charging. The loan was given to a company called Enigma Energy
  • Two loans, worth just over $2 million to a company called Berken Energy for two projects at a geothermal plant in Lyon County
  • A $1.9 million loan to a company called H2 Technologies for installation of a hydrogen fueling station in Carson City

All eight of the loans went into default between 2011 and 2014, with summary judgements entered in November 2014. Bobzien said there is “just not a lot of record of what processes or procedures were followed before the money was disbursed.”

He said judgments were entered into the appropriate counties to “secure the judgments against whatever real property may exist in the name of the entities,” but that all of the businesses in question have lapsed their business registration and had effectively disappeared. 

Bobzien, who was appointed by Gov. Steve Sisolak to the position in early 2019, said he asked a deputy attorney general assigned to the office last year to look into the defaults to see if there were a way to collect. He said that all companies were at the time registered with the state, but said the “trail goes cold” when trying to track down the named agents or officers of those businesses.

“It's almost as if there was no consideration of this possibility that some of these projects would just turn out to be vapor,” he said.

All of the loan accounts were transferred to the state Controller’s Office in early 2017, which is statutorily required to engage in debt collection practices on behalf of the state.

Bobzien said he wasn’t aware whether there had ever been an audit of the revolving loan program, and didn’t believe that the state would be on the hook or face any fiscal consequences from the federal government for the misused funds.

He said that similar problems with loan funding had popped up in other states’ energy offices, and noted that the office pushed for legislative authorization that would allow the remaining funds to be used as a grant, rather than a loan, which would come with additional checks and accountability from the prior system.

Bobzien added that if additional federal stimulus funds related to the COVID-19 pandemic and related recession are granted to the state for clean energy projects, it would be important to safeguard and ensure that the dollars are spent appropriately.

“As we look to the possibility of new recovery efforts that may encompass the energy space, people don't want to make these same mistakes again,” he said. “We want to make sure that the money is spent, and then goes to what it was intended to.”

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.

Sisolak signs climate change executive order, says state will look at stronger emission standards

Steve Sisolak signs executive order

Through an executive order Friday, Gov. Steve Sisolak directed his administration to develop a coordinated plan to address climate change, saying during a speech in downtown Reno that it builds on “substantial progress” his administration and the Legislature made in less than a year. 

The announcement marks a significant shift for an executive branch that was early to embrace renewable energy, but until recently had shied away from making explicit policy statements on an issue that scientists say is playing a role in rising temperatures, more extreme wildfires and increased variability of mountain snowpack, the source of drinking water for most Nevadans. 

“We are here to acknowledge that our fight is far from over,” Sisolak said in front of an electric bus at the Reno Transportation Commission of Washoe County. “In order to protect Nevada and reach our goals, we must continue to take steps to address this serious issue.”

Sisolak said the state will start moving to stronger emission standards. He said the state needs to turn its attention “to transportation, the largest source of carbon pollution in our state.” 

The governor did not elaborate on how the state planned to toughen emission standards. David Bobzien, who heads the Governor’s Office of Energy, said his office plans to study the issue.

“The administration has a lot of research to do [to] really look at the various models that are out there and try to find the one that is most applicable to our specific situation in Nevada,” he said.

Electric bus in Washoe County
An electric bus at the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County on Nov. 22, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak’s directive instructs state agencies on how to implement SB254, legislation requiring the state publish an annual emissions report. The legislation, signed by the governor in June, asks the state to examine the reductions necessary to meet specific carbon reduction benchmarks.

The executive order directs the administration to complete a report that inventories the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and includes policy options to reduce emissions. From there, it charges the state with developing a climate strategy with specific budget recommendations.

Echoing these goals, the executive order aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 28 percent of what they were in 2005 levels by 2025. By 2030, the state’s goal is to bring emissions to 46 percent below 2005 levels. Those benchmarks are in keeping with commitments from the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states that are seeking to follow the Paris Agreement. 

The report, according to SB254, requires the state to examine whether its policies “support long-term reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to zero or near-zero by 2050.”

At the event Friday, Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks said that the efforts marked a shift for the state. 

“Just one year ago, we could not even discuss the climate crisis or the reduction of carbon in the Nevada Legislature or in our state government,” he said. “And look how far we’ve come.”

Steve Sisolak talks to the press
Gov. Steve Sisolak talks to the press after signing an executive order on climate change at the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County on Nov. 22, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The state’s efforts will be coordinated by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Governor’s Office of Energy, but the executive order explicitly calls for collaboration with tribes, local governments, state agencies, the Nevada System of Higher Education and federal agencies. It also requires that the administration consider how the policies will affect low-income communities, often the most at-risk from climate change.

“Communities of color, especially low-income families, are hit hardest and the worst by the effects of climate change,” Alexa Aispuro, a community organizer with Chispa Nevada, said at the event. “We’re more likely to live in neighborhoods with dirty air or near sources of pollution.”

Policies, according to the executive order, could include “economy-wide” or “sector-specific programs” that include “market-based mechanisms.” Other policies that it suggests are building codes, transportation electrification and “tools and technologies to enhance climate resiliency.”

In addition to focusing on the reduction of emissions across the economy, the executive order also asks state agencies to consider their energy use and conduct a climate risk assessment. 

Before laying out administrative directives, the executive order acknowledges the challenges that climate change poses for Nevada’s environment and its economy. Between 1970 and 2018, it states, temperatures in Las Vegas have increased by more than five degrees, a threat to public health. And climate change, the executive order notes, poses a risk to outdoor recreation. 

It also ties climate change to attracting businesses to the state. Some companies are pushing to reduce their carbon footprint and incorporating climate change into their own risk assessments.