Follow the Money: Energy industry donors contributed more than $400,000 to lawmakers ahead of 2021 session

Amid continuing attempts by a Democratic-led Legislature to grapple with the effects of the energy industry on the climate, a handful of Nevada’s largest energy companies shelled out more than $401,000 to legislative campaigns through the 2020 cycle. 

That total was down roughly 19 percent compared to spending in the 2018 cycle, when the industry cumulatively spent almost $500,000. The drop was largely driven by a decrease in spending from statewide utility and energy giant NV Energy, which spent about 22 percent less this cycle compared to last, a difference of more than $47,500. 

This spending came as Democrats continued to hold on to control of both chambers of the Legislature, even as they lost a handful of seats across the board. Republicans gained one seat in the 21-person Senate and another three in the 42-seat Assembly, leaving the Democratic advantage at 12-9 and 26-16, respectively. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

The data in this story show only a slice of the campaign finance pie: 348 individual contributions from 15 donors fell under the umbrella of energy corporations, individuals or related PACs. 

However, two legislators are not included in this analysis: Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas). Both were appointed to legislative vacancies in February, a point at which contributions to lawmakers had already been frozen ahead of the start of the legislative session. 

These numbers also do not include candidates who lost their race for the Legislature, and may not represent the total spent by a given donor in the last election, but rather the amount they spent on winning candidates only. 

Though the money contributed by the energy industry was largely evenly distributed across almost every single sitting legislator (only one, Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), did not report receiving energy-related contributions), legislative leaders continued to be among the biggest recipients of industry contributions. 

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) once again led the way with $28,500, followed closely by her Assembly counterpart, Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), who received $27,250. 

Three other lawmakers received sums in excess of $15,000, including Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) with $19,300; Sen. Chris Brooks with $19,000 and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas), also with $19,000. 

Other reported totals were generally small. Six lawmakers reported between $11,250 and $10,400 in energy contributions, while the remaining 49 reported $9,750 or less. 

NV Energy, despite the spending decrease this cycle, was still by-far the largest single energy donor with more than $167,000 spread across the campaign of nearly every lawmaker elected last year. 

That money comes from an industry dominated like few others by just a handful of corporate or PAC-related interests. 

Alone, NV Energy’s sum amounts to almost 42 percent of all industry money contributed through the 2020 cycle. But combined with the next four closest donors — Southwest Gas ($124,000), Ormat Nevada ($37,500), Valley Electric Association ($28,500) and the Nevadans for Reliable, Renewable and Affordable Energy PAC ($16,000) — the share of the total contributed by the top donors alone rises to more than 93 percent of all industry contributions. 

This is explained in part because there were few energy-related donors — just 15 in total. Among them, the lowest 10 combined for less than 7 percent of overall spending, contributing a combined $27,700. 

Spread across 56 legislators, the utility’s $167,500 in spending widely favored Democrats both in the aggregate and on average. Overall, NV Energy gave a cumulative $126,000 to legislative Democrats, compared to just $41,500 for Republicans. Averaged to account for the Democrats’ numerical advantage in the Legislature, the utility still spent about 70 percent more on Democrats than Republicans, $3,500 to $2,075. 

At the top of the list of NV Energy’s contributions are Frierson and Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), a longtime renewable energy advocate who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, each of whom received the $10,000 maximum.

Two other Democrats, Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas), followed with $7,500 each, and the remaining 52 legislators received just $5,500 or less. 

Second only to NV Energy, Las Vegas-based utility Southwest Gas was among a handful of donors to increase its contributions in 2020 en route to spending $124,000 on 54 legislators — a jump of about 23 percent compared to 2018. 

Much of that spending went to Democrats in the aggregate, who as a group received $74,250 to the Republicans’ $49,750. However, the average Republican received slightly more than Democratic counterparts, $2,487 to $2,184. 

Much of that average difference stemmed from a $10,000 contribution to Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas), the only lawmaker to see the maximum allowed amount from Southwest Gas. 

Other major recipients include Cannizzaro with $7,000, Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert with $6,000 and Monroe-Moreno with $5,000. The remaining 50 lawmakers saw $4,500 or less. 

The largest of the “small” energy donors last cycle, Ormat Nevada — the Nevada subsidiary of renewables company Ormat Technologies — spent $37,500 across 45 legislators, a sharp 25 percent dip from the $50,500 it spent in 2018.

Like the rest of the industry, Ormat’s donations — though generally small — still favored Democrats in the aggregate. Democrats combined to receive $26,000 to the Republicans’ $11,500, or a difference on average of $897 for Democrats and $719 for Republicans. 

Unlike the major utilities, Ormat did not spend any large amounts on any single candidate, instead spreading its money in comparatively small amounts over several dozen lawmakers. 

Still, Cannizzaro and Frierson led the pack with $2,500 a piece. Four others received $1,500 — Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks), Gansert and Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) — while the remaining 39 received just $1,000 or less. 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

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, water bills fail to advance after legislative deadline

The Nevada Legislature Building

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

Friday was a major deadline day at the Legislature, and hundreds of bills failed to make it out of committee. They are effectively dead (though nothing is actually dead until the end of session). This week, the newsletter is looking at what environmental bills died and what bills are still alive. 

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


THE LEGISLATURE (Deadline Day Edition)

Natural gas legislation, efficiency bills die on deadline day: Two closely watched pieces of natural gas legislation failed to make it out of committee. The first bill, AB380, was aimed at requiring natural gas utilities undergo more rigorous resource planning, an effort to align the utility’s infrastructure investment with the state’s climate goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. 

SB296, backed by Southwest Gas, sought to harden the utility’s infrastructure by establishing a pipeline replacement program. The legislation from Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) did not get a hearing and was not given a special exemption to move forward. 

Why did these bills die so early in the session? I’m working on a piece with my colleague Riley Snyder about what happened and the gas utility’s lobbying efforts around the bills. 

As our legislative team, Michelle Rindels, Tabitha Mueller and Riley Snyder, reported, an energy efficiency bill (SB382) also died. “NV Energy opposed the bill, and said advocates should go through other avenues at the state Public Utilities Commission to accomplish their goals,” they wrote.

Mining oversight bill moves forward as regulatory reorganization stalls: The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources advanced AB148. The bill seeks to prevent so-called “bad actors” — companies or executives with a track-record of not meeting mine-cleanup obligations — from doing business in Nevada. Another bill, AB240, seeking to dissolve the Nevada Division of Minerals by splitting up its regulatory and advocacy roles, did not advance out of committee.

State’s water bills: Several proposed bills backed by the state’s Division of Water Resources died before the Friday deadline. SB155, legislation to change the requirements for Nevada’s top water regulator, the state engineer, did not advance past a key Senate committee. Similarly, two controversial proposals died, at least in their original form. AB354, legislation to create “water banks,” did not make it out of a committee after conservationists and rural interests argued that the proposal could lead to speculation and was not specific to Nevada water issues. Companion legislation, AB356, passed, but was amended with a largely unrelated conservation proposal backed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Its proposal seeks to remove unused turf.

There are still many bills to keep watching (this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Water legislation: An amended version of AB146, which passed out of committee on Friday, seeks to better manage water quality issues arising from indirect pollution. It also declares the state’s policy to a right to clean water. AB97 seeks to require regulators to form a working group to look at PFAS, often called “forever chemicals.” And of course, there’s the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s bill (AB356). It’s going to be interesting to watch how it is received in Carson City, in Las Vegas and in the Colorado River Basin. 
  • Energy/Emissions legislation: AB349 seeks to close the “classic car” loophole, which allows cars that are not, by most reasonable definitions, “classic” to evade regulations for tailpipe emissions. Another bill, AB383, looks to direct the state to adopt energy efficiency standards for appliances. And while most bills have been introduced at this point, Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) could still offer an omnibus clean energy bill. 
  • Mining resolutions: Lawmakers could still consider three resolutions to raise taxes on mining (AJR1, AJR2, SJR1), first passed during the special session over the summer.
  • Land and conservation legislation: AB171 aims to make it the state’s policy to protect stands of swamp cedars, geographically isolated populations of Rocky Mountain juniper trees that are sacred for Indigenous communities in the Great Basin (our story on the bill from March). And SB52 looks to create a program for awarding dark sky designations.

WATER AND LAND

State senator raises concerns about hedge fund’s water marketing proposal: Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) said last week that he is concerned about a hedge fund’s proposal to market water in Humboldt County, Nevada NewsmakersRay Hagar reports. Last summer, we co-published a three-part series on concerns about the hedge fund’s activities across the West. 

The push to protect Tiehm’s buckwheat: Tiehm’s buckwheat, a rare plant that is threatened by proposed lithium mining outside Tonopah, has been targeted for special protection, according to new documents reported by Scott Sonner with the Associated Press. The records show that state and federal officials, recognizing the threats to the buckwheat, found only on a small stretch of land in Nevada, considered measures to conserve its habitat. 

Restoring a wetland where few remain: Amy Alonzo, with the Reno Gazette Journal, reports on wetland restoration in southeast Reno — with sobering statistics about the loss of wetlands.

Coming up in the Supreme Court: A newly formed Supreme Court commission to study water law in Nevada plans to have its first meeting on April 16, the court announced this week. 

What I’m reading: The Atlantic published a powerful essay by David Treuer making the case for returning the stewardship of the national parks to Indigenous communities. Weaving history with our present moment, the essay is worth spending time with. “We live in a time of historical reconsideration, as more and more people recognize that the sins of the past still haunt the present,” Treuer writes. “For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks.”

CLIMATE CHANGE

What the snow tells us about intensifying drought: Across the West, the snowpack holds much-needed water for ecosystems, irrigators and communities. The timing of when that snow melts is critical. As the climate changes, the timing is changing, with significant ramifications. InsideClimateNews reporters Bob Berwyn and Judy Fahys look at what research tells us about the effects of longer dry spells and earlier snowmelt. One quote that stood out: “We’ve grown up in a world in which snowpack has been a reliable reservoir, but it’s not that way anymore.”

ENERGY AND MINING

Deseret NewsSofia Jeremias writes an in-depth piece about the Thacker Pass lithium mine. “In Nevada, mining has a long legacy of offering economic opportunity, giving it an influential voice among policymakers eager to accommodate the industry’s interests,” Jeremias writes. “It appears that may remain the case when it comes to mining the state’s lithium resources.”

Raiders ticket tax, affordable housing bills and conservative election proposals die at deadline

Hundreds of bills bit the dust on Friday, a deadline by which proposals needed to advance from their first committee or die, unless they have a special exemption.

Friday’s deadline day proved busy, with lawmakers passing out close to 120 bills or resolutions through marathon committee hearings, including measures abolishing capital punishment, imposing more gun control, allowing physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to people with terminal illness and many others.

But when the frantic, all-day rush of virtual committee meetings finally ended, more than 280 measures had failed to meet the deadline — nearly a third of the roughly 925 bills and resolutions introduced so far this session. Casualties included a host of affordable housing measures, ticket taxes on major sports teams, paying inmates the minimum wage, Republican-backed election bills and a bevy of other dashed legislative dreams.

While the concepts could always reemerge as amendments to other bills or entirely new legislation in the remaining 52 days of the session, here’s a look at some of the ideas that appear to be in the legislative graveyard. 

Raiders included in ticket tax

Tickets for Raiders and Golden Knights home games are exempt from a 9 percent Live Entertainment Tax on tickets, but an effort to bring them into the fold appears to be dead.

Sen. Dina Neal said she sponsored SB367 to create parity between those teams and other live events such as Cirque du Soleil shows. She said she doesn’t see a policy reason for the loophole, and argued it would only get harder to impose the tax on the teams’ tickets in the future as they started bringing in even more revenue.

But representatives from the teams argued that axing the exemption would violate the agreement on which the teams based their original moves to Nevada. They also speculated that subjecting teams to the tax would discourage more from relocating to the state.

More teeth in the public records act

In spite of a last-minute push from open government advocates, a bill to stiffen penalties for government agencies that violate the Nevada Public Records Act failed to survive the deadline.

The measure, AB276 from Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), would have allowed records requestors who prevail in a lawsuit be awarded twice the cost of their lawsuit. Local governments fiercely resisted the push, saying it would invite lawsuits.

"Even though this is disappointment ... I'm going to continue during my time here in the Legislature to continue to fight for that principle ... to make sure that our government is as open and accountable to the people as possible," Matthews said in an interview. 

Minimum wage for inmates

Lawmakers failed to advance SB140, a bill from Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) that would have required the state pay minimum wage to inmates. 

During a hearing, former inmates testified that they sometimes made a dollar for an hour or even an entire day of work.

The bill also aimed to put inmates on a more solid footing ahead of their release. It would have limited deduction from prisoners’ wages to just family support and victim restitution and created an Offenders’ Release Fund so wages earned behind bars could be used when they leave.

COVID rule-free zones

A proposal to designate special zones within businesses for people who are vaccinated or recovered from COVID to mingle unbothered by government COVID-prevention rules failed to gain traction in the Legislature. The bill, SB323, was sponsored by Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden).

Property taxes

A bill that received an icy reception for proposing a property tax floor increase, only received one hearing and did not live to reach the Senate floor.

The Nevada Association of Counties (NACO) brought forward SB10 to address local government shortfalls stemming from unexpected dips in property tax revenues.

Under current law, property taxes are capped at a certain percentage, with the goal of protecting property tax payers from burdensome increases year-over-year. Those caps can vary between zero and 3 percent for residential and zero and 8 percent for non-residential properties. The bill would have removed the ability for caps to drop below 3 percent and place a ceiling of 8 percent on tax caps for non-residential properties. 

Opponents criticized the measure as an overstep of government authority in the wake of an economically devastating pandemic.

Affordable housing

Three bills vehemently opposed by developers and development authorities quietly faded away after their first hearings.

Lauded by supporters as an opportunity to better understand Nevada’s rental market and take aim at bad-actor landlords, AB332, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), would have required the Housing Division of the Department of Business and Industry to establish a landlord registry containing a landlord's first and last name, information on rental units the landlord owns and rent prices.

But the bill failed to advance after receiving heavy opposition from landlords.

AB331 and AB334, aimed at giving local governments the ability to raise money to support affordable housing projects, received heavy pushback from developers who said that the legislation would increase developers' fees and further negatively affect the market. 

AB334, sponsored by Assemblywoman Shondra Summers Armstrong (D-Las Vegas), would have given local governments the option to require developers to follow inclusionary zoning policies. That means stipulating that a certain percentage of new construction has to be affordable for low-income households — or developers must pay a fee to avoid those requirements. 

The bill would also have given municipalities the option to adopt fees referred to as linkage fees, ranging from $0.75 to $10 for each square foot of commercial or residential development.

Democratic Assemblywoman Elaine Marzola's AB331 asked larger cities and counties to establish five-year goals for preserving and producing affordable housing. 

Housing developers launched an advertisement campaign against the two bills the week of the hearing, pushing lawmakers to oppose the legislation.

Developers, real estate companies and PACs funded by those entities contributed more than $1.3 million to lawmakers campaigns — the most money any single industry donated to state legislators. 

Natural gas planning & upgrading energy efficiency 

A bill by Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) requiring natural gas utilities to go through a comprehensive planning process aimed at a long-term transition away from natural gas failed to pass out of committee.

The bill, AB380, was heavily opposed by Southwest Gas and allies who claimed the bill would effectively end residential and commercial use of natural gas in the state.

Another bill requiring NV Energy to make a greater investment in energy efficiency programs, SB382, also failed to make it past the deadline. NV Energy opposed the bill, and said advocates should go through other avenues at the state Public Utilities Commission to accomplish their goals.

Reining in tax incentives for businesses

AB449, proposed by Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, attempted to balance out billions of dollars offered to corporations in the form of abatements or subsidies. 

Bemoaned by development authorities, the bill would have limited the Governor's Office of Economic Development's suite of tax incentives and required that businesses receiving tax incentives make payments into a state fund for affordable housing.

It marked the latest effort by Benitez-Thompson and other legislative Democrats to improve the state's at-times criticized collection of incentives and abatements to businesses that meet certain capital investment, job creation or minimum hourly wage targets. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval set up most of the incentive programs, but some Democrats (and at times, Gov. Steve Sisolak) have criticized the office for being too generous with abatements.

Republican election bills fall flat

Entering the 2021 session, many Republican lawmakers said that one of their top priorities would be to shore up election security and undo many of the mail voting changes implemented ahead of the 2020 election.

But after Friday, the vast majority of those proposals lay in the scrap heap, with most not even receiving a hearing.

The casualties were numerous In the Assembly and included bills repealing expanded mail voting (AB134), requiring proof of identity before voting (AB137, AB163), requiring the registrar of voters in major counties be elected (AB297), and a proposal amending the Constitution to require the Legislature and not the Supreme Court canvass the vote (AJR13).

In the Senate, Republican-backed election bills not receiving a committee vote before the deadline included measures implementing voter ID requirements and ending ballot collection from non-family members (SB225), as well as a bill expanding mail-in voting but limiting deadlines more stringently than what Democratic lawmakers have proposed (SB301).

Right to repair

A “right to repair” bill that would have made it easier for independent repair shops to fix phones and laptops failed to make it past the deadline.

AB221, from Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), would have required manufacturers produce documentation and the parts and tools necessary to diagnose, maintain and repair electronic devices with values ranging from $100 to $5,000.

While environmentalists praised it as a way to reduce waste in landfills, technology companies argued it could create privacy risks and that an independent repair shop could do serious damage to a device even under the bill’s specifications.

Community college system

Even though the concept of breaking the Nevada System of Higher Education into two entities earned a mention in the governor’s State of the State address in January, a bill to carry out the concept never got a hearing.

Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) had carried the bill, SB321, that proposed a Nevada  System of Community Colleges governed separately from the state’s universities.

Curbing governor’s emergency powers

Republicans were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to curb the governor’s emergency powers. AB93 and AB373, both of which would have made disaster declarations terminate after 15 days unless the Legislature extends them, failed to get hearings.

Members of the GOP have chafed against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s current state of emergency, which has lasted for more than a year.

Abortion notification

The Democrat-controlled Legislature did not entertain AB176, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks) that would prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion on a minor until 48 hours after her parents or guardians were served a notice of the procedure in person or through certified mail. 

Permanent Daylight Savings Time

A bill that would do away with sleep-disrupting time changes never got a hearing this session. SB153 from Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) would have called for Nevada to stay on Daylight Savings Time year-round, although it was contingent on the state of California enacting similar legislation.

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. 

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

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Bar: Stablecoin, utility regulator fines, abolishing K-12 commissions and more compensation for the wrongfully convicted

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

In this edition: A bill on “Stablecoin” that is totally not related to Innovation Zones, increasing utility regulator fines, changes to wrongful conviction compensation and heartburn on abolishing education-focused commissions, including one created by beloved former Assemblyman Tyron Thompson.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. This 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.


I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about Texas.

Everyone is generally aware of the massive power grid failures that left millions of Texans without reliable electricity, natural gas service, or even clean water in the midst of a massive winter storm. Dozens of deaths have already been reported and the toll is expected to rise.

I’ve avoided commenting on much of the news in Texas because I’m just not an expert in ERCOT, natural gas pipeline infrastructure or the wild confluence of factors that led to the greatest forced blackout in American history (I also have to write this newsletter). There have been some great breakdowns of what exactly happened to the Texas power grid, as well as some not-so-great ones.

But back in 2017 and 2018, I spent probably too much of my time following the debate and issues around potential implementation of a similar retail energy market in Nevada, in the form of Question 3. It would have amended the state’s Constitution to require that Nevada set up a retail electric market similar to the one in Texas and a handful of other “choice” states (I wrote a long story about why the measure failed).

Even if Question 3 had passed, Nevada would still be in a much different position than Texas. ERCOT, the grid manager for Texas, isn’t connected to any other state’s grid in order to avoid federal regulation. Nevada also has a much different mix of fuel resources than Texas, a different geographical layout and different weather conditions and patterns that affect electric supply and demand in different ways.

I don’t want to get too far in the weeds on retail choice states and what happened to Texas last week, again because this is nominally a newsletter about the Legislature and not Riley’s Thoughts About Electric Markets.

One universal takeaway from last week is this: our lives are governed by increasingly complex systems, whether it be the electric grid, health insurance, unemployment insurance or even the operations of the state government and Legislature. At the same time, expertise in those areas is harder to find, and people tend to apply their political priors to complex systemic issues.

It’s why I’m glad to work in a newsroom where I have the flexibility to spend a few days digging into regulatory filings for a more-than-surface level dive into resource adequacy and how worried Nevadans should be about a California or Texas-size grid disaster happening next summer.

I think there’s real value in reporting on complex issues that is not only deep and accessible, but free to the general public. So while stories on utility regulatory filings aren’t going to get the same attention as a story on which players the Golden Knights have signed, there is a real public service in digging into these issues before they reach the catastrophe phase.

— Riley Snyder

Assemblywomen Claire Thomas, left and Daniele Monroe-Moreno during the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Conine prepares Stablecoin bill, says it’s not related to Innovation Zone run on Stablecoin

Treasurer Zach Conine wants to prepare Nevada government agencies to accept the cryptocurrency Stablecoin as payment — although he insists his bill on the subject is unrelated to Blockchains LLC’s well-publicized proposal to create an entire “Innovation Zone” that secedes from the surrounding county and brings in tax revenue through a Stablecoin product.

Conine discussed the concept on Wednesday as SB39 at a hearing in the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, where he fielded a question about the polarizing Innovation Zone concept.

“The way I'm interpreting this bill is that it is connected to this innovation city. And this is a foundational piece for it to work,” said Democratic Sen. Dina Neal.

“It's not connected,” Conine retorted. “So the ability for us to take payment in the form of Stablecoins — and Innovation Zones, at least to the extent that I understand them — have nothing to do with each other.”

Stablecoin is a type of cryptocurrency that is tied to a reference point such as the U.S. dollar, in contrast to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin that don’t have such a peg and are much more volatile. Conine’s bill authorizes government entities to accept Stablecoins as payment in government transactions, just like they can accept credit cards.

“Now one of the reasons we want to put it into statute versus, say, just doing it in the same way that we don't necessarily contract a new piece of statute when we do PayPal or Zelle or something like that, is because we want companies to know that Nevada is open for business, to try and attract businesses that do this kind of thing to try it here,” Conine said.

Stablecoin operators, like credit card companies, can charge a fee for transactions using their Stablecoin. Blockchains LLC envisions creating its own Stablecoin to power “Painted Rock Smart City” and also be circulated well beyond the semi-autonomous Innovation Zone, according to a draft presentation of the proposal obtained by The Nevada Independent.

As previously reported in this newsletter, a PAC registered to Conine and his wife Layke has taken $60,000 from Blockchains LLC founder Jeff Berns. But it’s also not the first time Conine has tried his hand at solving byzantine monetary conundrums (see: his ongoing attempt to solve marijuana banking).   

“In today's connected world, technology changes rapidly and government is often the last to keep up,” Conine said. “Senate Bill 39 presents an opportunity for the state to not only keep up, but to forge a path ahead.”

— Michelle Rindels

Utility regulators seek update to fining powers largely unchanged for four decades

Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission assessed a $200 million fine against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for its role in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that left 85 people dead.

But if a similar tragedy happened in Nevada, caused by negligence by one of the state’s utility companies, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission would likely only be able to assess a much smaller fine — somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000.

That’s the reason the PUC filed SB18, which was heard Thursday in the Senate Committee on Growth and Infrastructure. PUC officers said that updating the fine amounts (many of which were set up to 40 years ago and never updated) would give the regulatory body the ability to levy fines that would be more than a flesh wound to the massive, investor-owned utilities like NV Energy or Southwest Gas that the commission currently oversees.

“Ultimately, the purpose of this bill is to empower the PUCN to impose fines that are concerning to those companies,” PUC Executive Director Stephanie Mullen said during the hearing. “We don't want the maximum fine amount to be something that they're comfortable paying, nor do we want the fine framework to be so prescriptive that it allows for companies to engage in a cost benefit analysis as to whether it makes business sense to comply with the law.”

For violations of rules and laws covering natural gas storage facilities and pipelines, the legislation (per a proposed PUC-backed amendment) would raise the fine amounts from up to $1,000 per day to $200,000 per day, with a maximum fine set at $2 million (previously set at $200,000). PUC General Counsel Garrett Weir said those amounts were in line with existing federal standards.

The bill would also create an administrative fine category — anyone who provides the PUC information which is “inaccurate or misleading and which the person knew or should have known was inaccurate or misleading.” Doing that, or violating any rulings or orders of the PUC, could now be punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 per day (up from $1,000) and a top-line limit of $10 million (up from $100,000).

It would also raise the fine amount for the unusual crime of operating a public utility without first obtaining a certificate of public convenience (or failing to file a report required by the Commission) from a modest $500 penalty to a maximum fine of no more than $50,000. 

Fines are remitted to the state’s general budget account and not kept by the PUC.

A cadre of business organization and utility representatives — Southwest Gas, Nevada Resort Association, Nevada Taxpayers Association, Vegas Chamber — testified against the bill, with a general concern that the fines were being raised too much. A lobbyist for NV Energy testified in neutral, saying that the utility agreed the fines should be raised but thought they should be tied to inflation rates.

Weir said the commission was willing to work on adjusting the administrative fine scale, but he noted existing law requires the PUC to consider the appropriateness of the fine to the size of the business and other mitigating factors. A larger fine maximum would give the PUC more flexibility in punishing bad, but not the worst, behavior.

“I think the commission struggles with determining what to fine an offense where, say, $100,000 is the maximum, is appropriate, but you don't want to send a message that that's an egregious violation, as something where there's loss of life, or some sort of terrible outcome,” Weir said. “So it's really a struggle. You hope to have that larger range to assess an adequate penalty when something is bad, but not the worst possible type of violation.”

— Riley Snyder

Advocates seeking more compensation for those wrongfully convicted

Public defenders and criminal justice advocates are concerned that a bill to revise the law on compensation for wrongful convictions does not include provisions accounting for the time that a person spends behind bars prior to their conviction.

“As the bill is drafted, it says you would receive compensation only after the time you were wrongfully convicted,” John Piro, of the Clark County public defender’s office, said during a legislative hearing on Friday. “However, there is time that you spend in jail waiting for your case to go to trial, and those are years of your life that you lose, as well.” 

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), primary sponsor of the bill (AB104), said he thinks opposition for the bill comes from a good place and that he would “probably love to give even more compensation” to those who have been wrongfully convicted. But he also said he was unsure of the proposals from those opposing the bill as it stands.

“The request really is to compensate folks for pre-conviction incarceration,” Yeager said during the meeting. “And as many of you know, people are incarcerated, right or wrong, they're incarcerated all the time before they get to trial. And right now, if you're incarcerated before you get to trial, and you go to trial, and a jury acquits you, the state doesn't compensate you for that time.”

Nobody testified in support of the bill during the hearing. Yeager said that he would continue to work out issues with the legislation before taking it to a committee vote.

The proposed measure builds off of another bill from 2019, AB267, that makes Nevada one of 35 states allowing people who were wrongfully convicted to collect payment from the state as compensation for the time they lost while behind bars.

Since the establishment of AB267 in Oct. 2019, seven individuals have filed wrongful conviction compensation complaints, and the state has settled four cases resulting in aggregate payouts of $7.69 million, including nearly $1 million approved this month for Reginald Mason. That cost could continue to rise, however, as the law includes a provision for reimbursement for other continuing costs such as health care or housing assistance.

— Sean Golonka

Mentoring panel championed by Tyrone Thompson may be spared in commission clean-up

A bill proposed by the Nevada Department of Education would revise and abolish commissions and advisory councils that are no longer in use, inefficient or have overlapping duties, but there is a chance that some on the chopping block — such as the Commission on Mentoring — could be spared. 

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert presented the bill, SB76, to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. It states that the duties of the proposed-to-be abolished commissions, councils, and training programs would be transferred to the Department of Education.

The department hopes that eliminating the committees would make the agency more efficient, as it is difficult to recruit to fill seats on the panels and meet quorum. Abolishing the committees would not get rid of the work the department already does in those topic areas, Ebert said.

The Nevada Commission on Mentoring (NCOM), established by the late Democratic Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, was on the list of being abolished, but Ebert said that the bill would be amended to keep it because it is the only place in state law that details mentoring issues in the education landscape. The bill language is expected to be changed so the mentoring commission remains in statute, but the Department of Education would not be providing the administrative support, which allows the commission to operate independently.

Karl Catarata, a youth commissioner in the Commission on Mentoring, commented in support of amending the bill. He said his experience with the commission has come “full circle,” as he was mentored by Thompson and he is now part of the commission. 

“I hope that you all consider keeping the state entity that regularly brings together mentoring leaders across our state and vote in the affirmative for the...amendment this session,” Catarata said. “The commission is always willing to work with you all on this committee and the Department of Education to continue successful mentoring outcomes, while being frugal and efficient about resources for our throughout the state.”

Some boards, commissions and councils currently set for elimination include the State Financial Literacy Advisory Council, the Commission on Educational Technology, the Council to Establish Academic Standards for Public Schools and the Statewide Council for the Coordination of the Regional Training Programs. 

Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) suggested that the Education Committee should look at each commission that is proposed to be abolished and have a more in-depth discussion on whether to keep it or not. 

— Jannelle Calderon

Bill would stave off court fees for more people facing eviction 

Lawmakers are considering a bill that could help Nevadans facing eviction by simplifying a process to avoid court fees.

When someone is given an eviction notice, they must file a summary eviction notice with the court, which costs $71 in Clark County. During a legislative hearing on Friday of AB107, Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, said the fee can pose a hardship for those facing eviction.

“That's a real impediment if the reason that you're there is because you didn't have enough money to pay to pay your rent in the first place,” Bortolin said.

The state already has a law in place that allows Nevadans to waive the fees required to prosecute or defend a civil action, but Bortolin said that that law is inadequate.

“By and large, our fee waiver system allows many people, thousands of people, every year to proceed, but it's not specific in who that should apply to,” Bortolin said. “And so what we've found is really just inconsistent results across the state.”

The bill would expand and broaden the qualifications for who can apply to have their fees waived, including any client of a legal aid program, any recipient of a state or federal program for public assistance, or anyone who “has expenses for the necessities of life that exceed his or her income.” 

Bortolin also noted that the courts would not bear the burden of waived fees and that the fees for the civil action filings would be paid by the legal aid providers in the state.

Criminal justice advocates noted during the hearing that the bill would make it easier to dispute evictions at a time when many Nevadans are struggling financially. 

“Poverty should never be punished by forcing unequal access to justice,” Liz Davenport of the ACLU of Nevada said during the meeting. “Existing law does not provide Nevada's courts a clear and objective standard for granting fee waivers and further does not provide an applicant with clear guidance.”

— Sean Golonka

DARK SKY SANCTUARY BILL ADVANCES

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources unanimously passed SB 52 on Tuesday, which would establish a voluntary state-based program for “dark sky” designations. The bill authorizes the state’s Division of Outdoor Recreation to create a voluntary program designating certain parts of the state as “dark sky” areas, which are remote parts of the state not affected as much by light pollution. The photo above was taken south of the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area, one of two areas in the state certified as a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

Our legislative fundraising overview and breakdown.

Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto will each get their own Senate subcommittees. Turns out that being 86th and 80th in Senate seniority can pay off!

The Assembly Republicans revealed their 2021 legislative priorities on Thursday. The caucus has also said its official position is that the 2020 election, where Republicans picked up three Assembly seats, was not “fraudulent.” 

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office is backing a bill to ban no-knock warrants, made infamous through the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.

A very technical clean-up bill on the state’s unemployment system usually wouldn’t get a lot of public attention, but DETR nonetheless remains in the spotlight.

Connecting released inmates with Medicaid benefits (Nevada Current)

More details on the bill to curtail debt-based suspension of driver’s licenses (Nevada Current)

Update on the “tainted voter rolls” lawsuit filed by former AG Adam Laxalt (Associated Press)

About one-third of the Nevada Supreme Court budget is based on administrative assessments, which have gone down greatly since the start of the pandemic. (Nevada Appeal)

More national coverage on the ‘Innovation Zones’ (The New Republic)

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is planning a bill that would create an esports regulatory body (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 18 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 21 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 98 (May 31, 2021)

Open government advocates worry proposed legislation will conceal deliberations about environmental issues. That's only half of the story.

Trucks at mine site.

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


The federal government requires them. Standard confidentiality clauses.

The agreements are rarely discussed. But they are central to SB77, a proposed state Senate bill that could exempt certain pre-decisional meetings and records involving environmental issues from the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act. Eureka County, a main proponent of the bill, has argued a change is needed to comply with both the federal agreements and state law.

April Corbin Girnus wrote an excellent piece about the issue for the Nevada Current: Right now, counties are often hampered by confidentiality rules. To discuss issues, they are stuck between following (or breaking) the federal confidentiality agreements and the state’s transparency laws.

But open government advocates have argued that the proposed bill would limit transparency in a process that has real-world consequences — whether mines are approved or power lines are erected. Ahead of a recent hearing, a coalition representing environmental groups, civil liberty advocates and news organizations, sent an opposition letter that’s worth reading (here’s a link). 

It is worth noting, too, that Eureka County’s natural resource manager, Jake Tibbitts, said the county opposes changes to the Public Records Act, and he is working to amend the drafted bill.

“If this were to move forward, we're totally open to stripping out all of that,” he said.

What struck me was why this bill was proposed in the first place. When the legislation was floated last fall, it was the first time I had heard of these federal confidentiality agreements. Given the federal government’s large role in permitting projects, they struck me as significant. 

Before I get into that, some incredibly technical (but important!) background:

Every year, dozens of local governments, tribes and state agencies participate in what is known as the NEPA process. NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. A lot can be said about it, but for now, the most important thing is that it requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental consequences of projects on federal land — and the outcome is significant. 

Nevada is about 85 percent federal land, so there are a lot of NEPA proceedings happening at any given time — and in many different corners of the state. When a federal agency starts the NEPA process, they invite local and state agencies to act as “cooperating agencies” during the crafting of an environmental analysis. It allows local and state agencies to convey opinions in an otherwise federal process. But there’s a downside: This is where confidentiality comes in.

These cooperating agencies — Churchill County or the Nevada Department of Transportation, for instance — must sign agreements with federal land managers, like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the agreements, a BLM spokesperson said, include standard language about confidentiality to prevent the “release of predecisional information or working documents.”

That puts a jurisdiction like Eureka County, an entity governed by three county commissioners, in a tough position. The county, at the center of the state’s gold mining activity, wants to have a say in the process for analyzing environmental impacts. To participate, they must agree to keep information confidential. At the same time, the Open Meeting Law requires that elected officials deliberate in public. But if they deliberate in public, they risk breaking the confidentiality clause. 

In 2009, the BLM chastised the county for doing just that: The Eureka Sentinel disclosed a report that showed pumping associated with a controversial molybdenum mine would have big effects on water. The disclosure suggested that the county broke its confidentiality agreement.

To avoid the issue, Tibbitts or one county commissioner typically represents the views of the county in the NEPA process. But state law limits their discussions with other elected officials. 

“It's been a whole struggle for me the whole time I've been here,” Tibbitts said.

This is especially a problem in rural counties that have small staffs or lack departments devoted to natural resources issues. Instead, a single county commissioner might take the lead in representing a county’s interests without being able to deliberate with their colleagues. 

But is Open Meeting Law the best venue by which to address the issue? That’s another question.

Open government advocates and environmentalists say no. They argue that a federal fix to the confidentiality language, stemming from the “deliberative process exemption,” might be needed. 

“The answer isn’t less transparency,” said Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The answer is more transparency. Let’s not make things worse.”

Donnelly sees SB77, as written, fitting into efforts to weaken state law around open government. 

He is also watching AB39, an Assembly bill that would exempt agencies from disclosing their deliberations prior to making a decision. Such a move would make it harder for the public to understand the interagency process, and in some cases the science, informing decisions.

“It would eliminate transparency,” he said. “Most public records requests I've ever done, which have resulted in important finds for our conservation campaigns, would have been exempted.”


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

CLIMATE CHANGE 

The Clark County Commission meeting. Yes, I’m aware that everyone tuned into the Clark County meeting on Tuesday for a different item: To watch the commissioners vote to change the name of the Las Vegas airport, currently dedicated to former Sen. Pat McCarran, a virulent and well-documented bigot. Now, with the FAA’s approval, it will be named for one former Sen. Harry Mason Reid. But all that to say, there was another big item on Tuesday’s commission agenda:

  • The Clark County Commission gave its unanimous approval to a climate action plan (here’s a link to the plan). It’s a major step for the state’s largest local government. With the majority of Nevada’s population, Clark County could play a key role in planning for more extreme heat and drought. “The impacts of climate change are very real and they are upon us,” commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Tuesday. “As a county set in the Mojave Desert, we know what’s at stake with our water and energy supply and intensifying heat island impacts. This plan recognizes those unique challenges.”

“First-hand experience:” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson cited “Nevada’s diverse population and first-hand experience in issues relating to climate change, public lands, immigration and health care” as reasons why we have “a unique voice that deserves to be heard first” in nominating presidential candidates. Why we aren’t already first? I don’t know. POLITICO’s Tyler Pager and David Siders have more on that.

Natural gas in the Legislature: Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate strategy recognized the need to transition away from natural gas to meet a goal of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. As I’ve written about before, this issue is coming to Carson City. Earlier this month, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) wrote an opinion piece for The Nevada Independent about why she is proposing legislation that would require gas utilities to undergo a more rigorous regulatory process when building new infrastructure. The bill would also require that state utility regulators study natural gas in the context of the state’s climate goals. Nevada’s largest gas utility, Southwest Gas, responded to the op-ed on Nevada Newsmakers last week. 

The natural gas PR-person Nextdoor: Mother Jones climate reporter Rebecca Leber digs into the tactics that the fossil fuel industry is using to influence customers to believe that natural gas stoves are preferable to electric stoves. The story includes an example from California, where an employee for a PR firm logged onto Nextdoor to stir up opposition to an electrification effort. Spoiler: There are Instagram influencers too. The reporting provides context for how the natural gas industry is doubling down on past efforts to sell gas stoves amid efforts to reduce fossil fuel use to combat climate change and a growing recognition of the health problems caused by indoor air pollution.

Texas, the electric grid, and climate change: The L.A Times’ Sammy Roth writes that “for all the differences between the events in Texas and California’s more limited rolling blackouts last year, there’s a common lesson: Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe as the climate crisis worsens. And the U.S. power grid is not prepared to handle the hotter heat storms, more frigid cold snaps and stronger hurricanes of a changing planet.”

WATER AND LAND

Shout it from the rooftop: You can’t build a new city without water. When I heard Gov. Steve Sisolak tout Blockchains LLC in his State of the State — with the words “smart city” — I could not help but ask about the water. We started digging, and what we found was that Blockchains, a big donor to politicians (and The Nevada Independent), wants to pipe water from rural Nevada. It scooped up water rights in northern Washoe County for more than $30 million and has also looked elsewhere, including in Humboldt County. The big takeaway here: Development of any sort, though especially a new city, is a question of natural resources as much as anything else. 

Rancher sues BLM over lithium mine: A Northern Nevada rancher is suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the Trump administration’s approval of the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca. The lawsuit alleges that the land agency’s approval, in the final days of the administration, violated environmental laws, the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Scott King writes.

Judge rules against lifting mining moratorium: “A federal judge on Thursday overturned a Trump administration action that allowed mining and other development on 10 million acres (4 million hectares) in parts of six western states that are considered important for the survival of a struggling bird species,” Matthew Brown reported for the Associated Press last week. A District Court judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider the Trump administration’s decision, which did not fully consider how it would affect the imperiled Greater sage grouse.

The commission to study water law: A few weeks ago, we reported that Supreme Court Chief Justice James Hardesty planned to empanel a commission to study how water law is viewed in the judicial system and examine whether to create specialty water courts. An order requesting the creation of such a commission is now online, and a public hearing is scheduled for March 3.

Reno attorneys fined in Swan Lake flooding lawsuit: A Washoe County District Court judge fined City of Reno attorneys “$1,500 for failing to admit to facts in the Swan Lake flood case filed by Lemmon Valley residents,” Bob Conrad reported for This is Reno. “The sanction is on top of awarding more than $750,000 in damages to plaintiffs in the case. The award does not include attorney fees, which could double the amount owed to plaintiffs and attorneys.”

Contact tracing in wastewater: “Findings from wastewater testing suggest the U.K. variant of the coronavirus is circulating in Southern Nevada, according to one UNLV researcher, but the prevalence of the more contagious variant is unclear,” the Review-Journal’s Blake Apgar writes.

Some ranch sales are just out of this world.

OUTDOOR RECREATION

Boost in outdoor activities: The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) saw a jump in hunting and fishing license sales during the pandemic — and 2021 is expected to be better, Sudhiti Naskar reports for This is Reno. Our reporter Tabitha Mueller broke down the numbers in our legislative newsletter (you should sign up to receive it). “If there is a silver lining, it's in people's turning to nature for mental health, or physical health," NDOW Director Tony Wasley said in January.

Where to see dark skies: The Reno Gazette Journal has a few suggestions. 

Update: This story was corrected at 9:09 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 to indicate that NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act, not the Nevada Environmental Policy Act, as an earlier draft stated.

Behind the Bar: Following the Blockchains money trail, Capitol Police severely understaffed and return of ‘Death with Dignity’

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

In this edition: We track campaign contributions from Blockchains LLC, including to a PAC run by Treasurer Zach Conine. Capitol Police are also severely understaffed, and the “death with dignity” bill is back after falling short in 2019.

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.

~~~

If you missed the announcement on Friday, our entire legislative coverage page is now available in Spanish (direct link here).

This is a huge accomplishment, and ensures that features like the Sisolak Promise Tracker, legislator bios and our major issue tracker are available to readers in two languages. The project only happened this quickly because of the tireless work by Luz Gray, Jannelle Calderon, CJ Keeney and Michelle Rindels to handle translation and other tasks required to convert the page into a second language.

I bring this up not only because I want to promote the hard work of my colleagues, but also to highlight that the language gap can really keep Spanish-speaking Nevadans out of the normal legislative process.

Look, it’s hard enough to follow the Legislature in non-pandemic times, with the weird web of rules, arcane legal and procedural steps and all the other confusing process things that make it difficult to follow along if one is new to the process. 

Now imagine doing that in your non-native language. (If English is your first language, can you imagine trying to follow the Spanish-language equivalent of Kevin Powers?)

There is a concerted effort this year to get the Spanish-speaking community more involved in the Legislature (the #nvlegES hashtag has sprung up this session, and the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus has taken steps to publicize issues that could be interesting to a Spanish-language audience).

But there is certainly a role for journalists to provide news, context and information to a primarily Spanish-speaking audience. This is a systemic problem — despite increasing diversity in the Legislature, the vast majority of full-time reporters covering the Legislature are white men (including myself).

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed overnight. But I think — hope — that continuing to publish and promote high-quality Spanish language content will get a broader audience interested in what happens in Carson City.

— Riley Snyder

Governor Steve Sisolak during a virtual signing ceremony for AB 106 inside the Capitol building in Carson City on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Follow the Money: Blockchains LLC spread the wealth before Innovation Zone reveal

Local and national attention has been showered upon the proposal from Blockchains LLC to create autonomous, self-governing “Innovation Zones” since the proposal was first publicized in the first week of the legislative session.

Since then, few details have emerged from the governor’s office or state agencies about the “Innovation Zone” proposals, but it has raised many questions and attracted renewed attention as to why the company with more than 67,000 acres of land in Storey County is pushing for what seems like the 21st century equivalent of a “company town.”

But while the proposal may seem fantastical, the company and founder Jeff Berns aren’t exactly new faces to lawmakers or Gov. Steve Sisolak — both have made sizable political contributions since the company first came on the scene in 2018.

Many of the larger donations have been documented. Blockchains LLC made max contributions to Sisolak and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt during the 2018 governor’s race, and he made a $50,000 contribution to a political action committee (Home Means Nevada) affiliated with Sisolak. Berns also cut a $50,000 contribution to the Nevada State Democratic Party in 2019.

But the political contributions continued into the 2020 election cycle. Berns himself contributed an aggregate of $34,500 to 11 lawmakers, including three of the four legislative leaders and a $10,000 maximum contribution to Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden). Wheeler also received a $10,000 contribution from Mary Berns, the wife of Jeff Berns. Wheeler’s district includes the headquarters of Blockchains and potential future site of the “Innovation Zone.”

David Berns, former president of the company and brother of Jeff Berns, also made a $1,000 contribution to Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno) and $1,500 to Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno).

Outside of direct contributions, Jeff Berns also made direct contributions to a political action committee affiliated with state Treasurer Zach Conine (Berns also contributed $10,000 to Conine’s campaign account in April 2020).

The PAC, “Let’s Get to Work Nevada,” is registered to Conine and his wife, Layke Martin, and reported receiving $60,000 in contributions from Jeff Berns in 2020 (out of $65,100 total raised through the year). It has little presence outside a bare-bones website, but contributed a combined $20,500 to primarily legislative Democratic candidates through 2020. 

In an email, Conine said the PAC was set up to support “candidates and causes that work to advance opportunities for all Nevadans through effective economic growth, strategic investments in infrastructure, and innovative ideas that move our State forward.”

“Jeff Berns shares this same vision, and I'm grateful for all of his support to help elect candidates who are dedicated to building a better and more inclusive Nevada,” he wrote in the email.

(Disclosure: The Nevada Independent has received donations of $35,000 from Blockchains and $375,000 from Jeff Berns. I’ve spoken to Berns twice — once for a story where the company purchased a small bank in Las Vegas, and the other time during an Indy fundraising event in February 2020. Berns was dressed as Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.)

Conine and the state Treasurer’s Office have been heavily involved in several aspects of Sisolak’s economy-focused legislative agenda (including implementation of a small business grant program approved by lawmakers last week), though his office and other state agencies have largely avoided commenting on the Innovation Zone proposal since the State of the State address.

While Berns has made campaign contributions to lawmakers in both parties, the focus on Democratic lawmakers and a PAC supporting them isn’t necessarily surprising given that Democrats control both legislative chambers. 

There hasn’t been much organized Republican push back quite yet on the proposal, though the Nevada Republican Party described the concept in a Facebook post as “Sisolak’s new plan to allow Big Tech to create their own governments in Nevada”.

— Riley Snyder

Capitol Police severely understaffed after year packed with protests

Low pay and long hours driven by frequent protests in the last year have left the state’s Capitol Police Division facing a severe staffing shortage.

During a legislative meeting on Thursday, officials from the Department of Public Safety revealed that of the division’s 21 full-time employee positions, nine are vacant and another seven officers have given notices to leave. The Capitol Police Division provides police services to state buildings in Carson City and Las Vegas, including the Capitol Building, Governor’s Mansion and the Grant Sawyer Building.

A recurrent topic throughout the meeting was the department’s recruitment struggles, which were noted by Sheri Brueggemann, the public safety department’s deputy director. 

“Again, the pay parity, so the issue with Capitol Police is they are below their sister agencies, which are below the local law enforcement,” Brueggemann said.

Those sister agencies, including the Highway Patrol and Parole and Probation division, along with local law enforcement all had to provide help to the Capitol Police last year, with some agencies sending officers from Las Vegas to Carson City, as the division dealt with an overwhelming number of protests.

From March to June last year, the division spent more than 500 overtime hours responding to demonstrations, as well as another 441 overtime hours policing demonstrations from July through February.

Brueggemann described how Capitol Police face a tough job as they are often the first responders to protests at government properties, and because officers in that division earn 15 percent less than officers in other departments agencies, retention is difficult.

But those struggles stretch far beyond the Capitol Police Division. Department of Public Safety turnover exceeded 100 percent in each of the last three years, reaching a high point last year when the number of sworn officers who left the department outnumbered the cadets hired by 81 to 60.

Aside from the pay disparity, the background investigation and hiring process also eliminates a large number of candidates. Mavis Affo, human resources manager for the department, said that it takes about 100 applicants to get five candidates to attend the training academy.

The department could work towards recruiting for each of its individual divisions specifically moving forward, after a state audit recommended that the parole division should adopt a formal plan for recruitment and retention.

— Sean Golonka 

Death with Dignity legislation is back after failing to pass in three prior sessions

Nevada lawmakers may once again take up the dicey issue of whether people should be able to take life-ending drugs if they have a terminal illness.

Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris’ Death with Dignity bill, SB105, dropped on Tuesday, and she said Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores will take up the issue on the Assembly side.

“Believe it or not, as a progressive, sometimes I'd like the government to get out of the way,” she said. “I just fundamentally believe people should have a right to do this in discussion with not one doctor, but two.” 

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office was noncommittal Friday on whether he would sign or veto such a bill. The physician aid-in-dying concept has failed in recent sessions, including in 2019, when such a bill passed out of committee but never came up for a vote on the Senate floor, in spite of the celebrity endorsement of civil rights icon Dolores Huerta.

In 2017, it narrowly passed out of the Senate after a Republican and independent joined Democrats in support, but Democrats Aaron Ford and Mo Denis opposed it. It died in an Assembly committee.

And in 2015, a bill on the issue never came up for discussion. Republican Sen. Joe Hardy, a physician and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did not grant it a hearing in the committee he chaired.

Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer had been a co-sponsor of such legislation in the past, but said he ultimately grew more uncomfortable with the idea as time went on and switched his position.

“I've waffled,” he said. “I'm not embarrassed to say that when it comes to questions of life and death and the divine spark, that I struggle sometimes.”

Harris said some constraints that have been added to the legislation over time may help allay some of the concerns, potentially making Nevada the tenth state in the country that allows a right to die. She said she knows it won’t be an easy discussion.

“I understand the emotion behind it, right?” she said. “I mean, death is the one thing that unifies us all.”

— Michelle Rindels

Senate Majority Leader Nicole J. Cannizzaro 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

Journalists over-use the phrase “must-read,” but this Daniel Rothberg story on Blockchains, Innovation Zones and water rights is, well, a must-read.

Blockchains founder Jeff Berns also did an interview this week with the Associated Press.

Jannelle Calderon on a proposal by Assemblywoman Robin Titus (R-Wellington) to take derogatory language referring to people with disabilities out of the state Constitution.

Our stories on the hearing and signing of the highly touted bill allocating $50 million in grants to small businesses affected by the pandemic.

The number will likely change, but the $1.9 trillion federal aid measure currently before Congress would send $3.9 billion with a ‘b’ to Nevada, which has potentially major implications for the state budget.

That summer special session for redistricting will now likely be after late September, after the Census Bureau announced another delay in release of information needed to draw new district maps. (New York Times).

More national attention on Nevada’s majority-female Legislature (The Recount).

Rural counties want more secrecy on debating projects with major environmental effects. Open government groups and environmental groups say nuh-uh (Nevada Current).

Some transparency concerns with the closed session, though some advocates say remote meetings open testimony to more people (KUNR).

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) wants to close the “classic car loophole” (I always enjoy seeing crappy 90s sedans riding around with classic vehicle license plates, but that’s just me) (Las Vegas Sun).

Southwest Gas is already pushing back on Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen’s (D-Las Vegas) planned bill requiring them to file cost-benefit plans with the Public Utilities Commission every three years (Nevada Newsmakers).

There’s a lack of diversity in the marijuana industry (Las Vegas Review-Journal).

The boss did an AMA on Reddit

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 26 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 29 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 106 (May 31, 2021)

From Congress to the Legislature, six environmental issues to watch for in 2021

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

It’s Dec. 24, 2020. And it goes without saying that this was a tough year all around. Although I am looking forward to 2021, I bear in mind that the next few months — and longer — are likely to remain challenging, perhaps even more so. But heading into this holiday week, I feel grateful for a lot of things, including The Indy, the opportunity to write this newsletter each week and being able to highlight voices from across the state. I hope everyone is able to take some time over the break and celebrate a warm holiday with friends and family, even if it’s over Zoom. 

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 tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


1. Moving from climate change planning to climate policy: Nevada now has a climate strategy sitting on Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk. The thing to watch in 2021 is how the state starts to implement it. The climate strategy’s broad goal is to offer a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050. So by definition, it has a multi-decade shelf-life. But that in no way excuses policymakers from acting now. The strategy acknowledges that, without new policy, Nevada is not on pace to meet the 2050 goal. The questions then become: What policies and how do they get prioritized? 

The climate plan differs from other reports in that it does not hand the Legislature pre-written bill drafts or prescribe to local governments exactly what policies they need to implement to put the state on track for reaching its goals. It makes a simpler point: Climate change is something that regulators and elected officials need to bake into all of their processes — something to consider every step of the way. Over the next year, it will be important to watch how policymakers, local and statewide, weigh climate change making decisions on a range of issues — in homebuilding, in transportation, in urban planning and in diversifying the state’s economy. How these policies address social justice and equity are crucial elements, and ones that I’ll be closely monitoring. 

2. A shift on public lands and environmental regulation: Over the weekend, President-elect Joe Biden introduced his climate team, comprising the administration’s appointees for several key positions related to energy and the environment. When compared to Trump’s appointees over the past few years, Biden’s nominations generally represent a stark study in contrasts. 

If personnel is policy, Biden’s appointees, on the whole, signal a significant shift away from a Trump administration that has rolled-back numerous environmental protections, often going against the best available science. The New York Times has a list of all the rollbacks. What happens moving forward? It depends a lot on the issue. In some cases, changing a regulatory rollback would require an exhaustive rulemaking process that can take years, especially if the Democrats do not have control of Congress. In November, InsideClimateNews looked at five potential focal points for a Biden administration looking to correct climate-related rollbacks. The piece notes that there are other factors at play, including increased public support for climate action, knowledge of the issue and potential buy-in from industries on certain regulations.

Although climate change rightfully gets a lot of the attention, it’s not all about climate change. The Trump administration rolled back numerous regulations regarding public lands, which are bountiful in Nevada (the U.S. Bureau of Land Management controls about 67 percent of all land in the state). Biden’s appointee for the Department of Interior, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, represents a historic pick for the position as the first Native American person to lead an agency that oversees tribal lands and is charged with protecting wildlife and permitting on public land.

3. Where will the renewables go? Even during a Trump administration that did not actively encourage renewable deployment over fossil fuel development, energy companies continued to pursue and build sprawling renewable facilities in the Mojave desert. As the state government and the Biden administration focus on expanding renewables, more and more pressure will be placed on locating projects, such as solar and geothermal facilities, on or near sensitive land. 

This is not a new issue. For more than a decade, the issue has often divided the environmental community, especially in the Mojave desert where improperly-located renewable projects can harm species, including the desert tortoise. Under the Obama administration, land managers created areas (Solar Energy Zones) to prioritize solar development on lands considered suitable for development. But solar developers have continued to build projects outside of those areas. 

At the same time, Nevada is poised to play a role in the materials supply chain for renewables and electric vehicles — technologies that are poised to be at the foundation of a decarbonized economy. As mining companies look to build new projects, they are already starting to face similar questions around location: What is the impact on water? What is the impact on wildlife?

There is no way around it: Meeting decarbonization goals is going to require a lot of land and a lot of public land. That’s why some conservation groups are advocating a planning process that analyzes land values and prioritizes the development of renewables on previously disturbed land. How this happens — or would happen — is something I’ll be watching out for next year.

4. A looming fight over natural gas: The Sisolak administration’s climate strategy is clear. For Nevada to meet its climate goals, the state must transition from natural gas in commercial and residential buildings. The climate plan includes the following language: “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. This would preclude establishing new pipelines, thus avoiding future stranded assets.” Cut to the 2021 session of the Legislature. 

Environmental groups are concerned that a permissive regulatory structure could lead to the construction of more natural gas infrastructure. In addition to expanding the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure, they argue, it could come at a high cost as climate goals require phasing out natural gas before new infrastructure could be paid off, creating what are known as stranded assets. At the same time, Southwest Gas, as I have reported, is looking at legislation around a pipeline replacement program. NV Energy, a natural gas provider in Northern Nevada, did not comment when I asked about its position on natural gas and the climate plan’s call to action.

What happens to natural gas in the 2021 session will be an interesting and important issue to watch, potentially predictive of how the state begins to address climate change. What will the governor do? And where will NV Energy land on the issue? Electrification is an opportunity for the utility. But at the same time, NV Energy provides natural gas to customers in the North.

5. Water law and water realities: I’ll keep this one short. What do discussions around Nevada water look like in a world where the Las Vegas pipeline is no longer at the center of attention?

Like most states in the Southwest, Nevada faces issues around managing groundwater (I wrote about a few of them earlier this year.). Across the state, each case is different. But the dynamics are often similar. There are more rights groundwater and streams on paper than there is water to go around without permanently undermining ecosystems, springs and the long-term use of water. The situation plays out across the West, and regulators have few easy management tools.

Although it will be interesting to watch what happens with water in the Legislature this session, lawmakers in Carson City are not the only decision-makers here. The courts play a major role, too. Several important cases are pending before the Nevada Supreme Court, including one that involves the state’s authority over domestic wells and whether the state, with the backing of a majority of local irrigators, can diverge from the traditional application of state water law. Just how influential are the courts in this? Here’s an indication: The state appears to be proposing a constitutional amendment that would make the Court of Appeals the first court to review state water rulings. District courts with locally elected judges are currently the first to hear the cases. 

6. The public land bills: Everyone is waiting for it. Environmental groups. Business groups in Southern Nevada. For years, Clark County has been working with the congressional delegation to craft proposed federal legislation that would allow for the ring around the Las Vegas Valley to expand onto public land. Clark County planners want to direct new growth south down the I-15 corridor toward Ivanpah and the California border. To offset the new growth, previous drafts of the legislation have looked to protect land as wilderness or as designated conservation areas. 

In a recent interview, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto confirmed that she is planning to introduce a version of the Clark County Lands Bill in Congress. Past versions of the legislation have been criticized for encouraging past growth patterns (growing out, not up) and have raised broader issues around sustainability, transportation and climate resiliency in a growing Las Vegas. 

Did I mention there are similar processes playing out in other counties across the state? 

Looking at you, Washoe County.