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A moderate governor and a Democratic Legislature: What the election means for the environment

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Election 2018Environment
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At the Reno Patagonia Outlet in the lead up to the election, the outdoor retail company had a simple question for consumers: “Have you made a voting plan?” A few weeks later, Patagonia made its first political endorsement in the Nevada and Montana Senate races, coming out for Rep. Jacky Rosen, who the company said was the candidate that would protect public land.

In echoes starting from the primary, the environment played a role in several 2018 races. Ads, rallies and speeches prominently highlighted positions on everything from development near Red Rock National Conservation Area to the Trump administration’s push to deregulate clean air standards. Op-eds discussed Las Vegas’ decades-long effort to pump groundwater south from Northeastern Nevada and policies to drive up the state’s renewable energy requirements.

When voters are surveyed on all the issues that drive them to the polls, the environment does not always rank at the top. At the same time, voters often have strong opinions on public lands issues, especially in a state like Nevada, where the federal government manages more than 85 percent of the state’s land. Earlier this year, a Colorado College poll showed that Nevada voters from all political parties supported emphasizing public land protection over energy development.

In Nevada, the Democrats scored a decisive win last week, sending Rosen to the Senate and Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak to the Governor’s Mansion. Where clean energy and climate-conscious ballot initiatives failed in Arizona, Colorado and Washington, Nevada voters also approved Question 6, a ballot measure to mandate more clean energy.

The question is what happens next.

For the Nevada Conservation League, no 2018 race was more important than the campaign for governor, according to Andy Maggi, the group’s director. The conservation group spent more than $3.7 million in Sisolak’s race against Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

“The outcome determined whether we had an ally,” Maggi said. “Without question, Adam Laxalt was a threat to the environment, a threat to public land and a threat to clean air.”

This summer, the Nevada Conservation League launched a six-figure ad campaign attacking Laxalt for receiving contributions from a Super PAC affiliated with the Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch, who run the fossil-fuel giant Koch Industries, have fought against environmental regulation.

In some ways, Sisolak’s embrace by the environmental community came as an evolution.

In the primary, the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter declined to endorse Sisolak. Instead the group endorsed his opponent, Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who ran to Sisolak’s left and slammed him for voting to approve concept plans for thousands of homes near Red Rock. The two candidates also differed on whether Las Vegas should grow upward or outward.

Once the general election race came around, the Sierra Club got behind Sisolak’s candidacy.

“Endorsing Sisolak was easy because it was clear that he would provide better leadership on conservation and renewable energy,” said Brian Beffort, the Toiyabe Chapter’s director.

In contrast to Laxalt, Sisolak, during the general election, came out strongly in favor of Question 6, the ballot measure to increase the state’s renewable portfolio to 50 percent by 2030. Sisolak went further, saying that he wanted to move the state to 100 percent renewables. He said he opposed cuts to Gold Butte National Monument and supported Nevada’s recreation economy.

Some of his positions have been more complicated to square.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Sisolak said he opposed the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to pump billions of gallons of rural groundwater 250 miles to Las Vegas. A few days later, Sisolak voted to let the water authority continue litigating the project.

Water is likely to be one of the first issues Sisolak addresses as governor. The state’s water engineer, whose opinion is key to the pipeline’s future, is resigning in January. Although the governor is not directly involved in appointing a new top water regulator, he would have input.

“It remains to be seen what kind of governor he’s going to be on the pipeline issue,” said Abby Johnson, who runs the Great Basin Water Network. “Being on record against it and encouraging more desalination is encouraging. I think it’s really unfortunate that [the candidates] didn’t get a chance to debate. That would have likely been a way to clarify their positions.”

And in the final weeks before Election Day, Sisolak said he opposed a waiver for a requirement to build homes near Red Rock, a move touted by some conservationists. In the past, however, Sisolak had voted to approve concept plans that would potentially allow homes to be built there.

When asked if those two things were in conflict, Maggi said “I think it’s safe to say he’s protected public lands,” citing Sisolak’s support for Gold Butte and efforts to protect wilderness.

“Steve is and always has been a strong supporter of protecting Red Rock,” Christina Amestoy, a spokesperson for Sisolak, said in an email. “He does not support any development that seeks to circumvent the protections voted into place by the commission.”

With Sisolak’s election and a Democratic Legislature, conservationists see an opening.

Maggi said the groups are likely to raise bills that Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed last year. One bill, which roughly mirrored Question 6, would have increased the renewable portfolio standard. The other bill would have allowed neighborhoods to create community solar systems.

Amestoy did not say whether Sisolak would support community solar but she said he is “committed to pursuing legislation that increases Nevada’s use of renewable energy in a smart, effective manner.”

Patrick Donnelly, who serves as state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Legislature and the Sisolak administration could raise questions about the Trump administration on deregulation with letters and resolutions. This would not necessarily be new. The Sandoval administration, on some issues such as the Greater sage-grouse conservation plans, has pushed back against White House efforts to remove environmental requirements.

“I think generally the environmental community is going to be pursuing a pretty proactive agenda, in some ways to shape policy, particularly on renewables, and in some ways, to take advantage of the fact that our electorate has elected a very pro-environment Legislature,” he said.

Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining, said she was excited by the opportunity to advance environmental goals. Swank noted that two Assembly freshmen, Howard Watts and Sarah Peters, have professional experience working on environmental issues, particularly around development and water.

“We need to, as Democrats, grab this opportunity,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing.”

Even under one-party rule though, she said legislators should listen to interests on the other side, particularly in rural Nevada, where environmental regulations can often have outsized consequences on natural resource economies that rely on agriculture or mining.

“We have a lot of responsibility to listen to folks in the rural areas where representation there has for a very long time been Republican,” she said.

Several conservationists interviewed for this story predicted the Democrats would introduce another bill to increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard. Question 6, the effort to increase the requirement utilities have to procure renewables, passed by a 19-point margin. In order to become a requirement, voters would need to approve the measure again in 2020.

If the Legislature passed a similar proposal next year, it would bring about the requirement before 2020. The success of Question 6 suggests that the electorate in Nevada, home to a relatively small oil and gas industry, supported renewables like solar and wind, Donnelly said.

A similar effort to increase renewable standards failed in Arizona. In Colorado, a push to impose distance requirements between oil rigs and homes failed. Similarly, a climate-change measure in Washington that would have placed a price in carbon also went down at the polls.

“Nevada was a bright spot,” said Kyle Roerink, the communications director for the renewable energy initiative. “I think we’re fortunate to have the support that we have here and I think the reason why we do have it is because everyone recognizes the potential.”

Given that most of Nevada’s land is managed by the federal government, the politics within the state are set against broader national dynamics that have been slightly changed by the election.

Going into Election Day, many viewed the race between Rosen and Heller as key to flipping the Senate to Democratic control and checking Trump’s agenda. Rosen prevailed in her race but Republicans were successful enough elsewhere that they will continue to control the Senate.

What has changed for Nevada is that the House is now in Democratic hands. That means the heads of House committees will now be controlled by Democrats, a fact that could affect efforts in Clark and Washoe counties to pursue legislation for development and conservation. New committee heads could require those bills have more wilderness protections.

Update: This story was updated at 8:36 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2018 to clarify a quote from Abigail Johnson. When Johnson said that it was unfortunate there was no debate, she was referring to the gubernatorial race, not the water authority board. 

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