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President Joe Biden tours the Techren Solar Project near Boulder City on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

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 [email protected].

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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. 

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