Indy Q&A: Harry Reid on why coal industry is doomed, Yucca Mountain still dead and his pick in Nevada's gubernatorial primary
Harry Reid may be out of elected office for the first time since 1983, but he certainly isn’t done with politics.
The former Senate majority leader and the longest serving U.S. senator in Nevada history is still deeply tapped into state and national political affairs, and hasn’t spent his retirement fading into the background. In the last year, Reid has helped recruit Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen to run against vulnerable Republican Sen. Dean Heller in 2018, co-founded a UNLV think tank with former House Speaker John Boehner and on Friday co-hosted the ninth iteration of a renewable energy summit with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Reid sat down with The Nevada Independent in the midst of the summit for a wide-ranging interview, discussing his thoughts on solar tax credits, why he says the coal industry has no long-term future and why he thinks it’s “probable” Democrats will retake the U.S. Senate in the 2018 midterm elections.
Reid also didn’t spare any criticism towards members of Donald Trump’s administration backing efforts to re-open a stalled nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain, accusing them of “not playing with a full deck of reality.”
He also decried the administration’s efforts to prop up the coal industry, calling it “no longer viable” as businesses and others move towards renewable energy investments. The former Senate leader in 2015 was able to negotiate an “unprecedented” five-year extension to renewable energy tax credits that’s been credited for spurring recent growth in wind and solar development.
Reid also for the first time publicly backed Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak in the state’s Democratic primary for governor, over fellow Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who plans to announce her candidacy on Wednesday..
“If she stays in the race, he’ll win it, and I feel very comfortable with him in the general election,” he said.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is the Solar Investment Tax Credit. It’s due to expire in 2022, you were a big proponent of it during your time in Congress. There’s been a movement in the administration — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said he thinks we should do away with solar and wind tax credits. Does Congress need to reauthorize those?
A: I’ll make them a deal. If they do away with all the tax credits to carbon, oil and gas, coal, they do away with those, we’ll do it. Because they get about five times more than we do. So, while Pruitt’s talking about doing away with tax credits, tax incentives, look at coal and gas. They’re the worst, the worst.
Q: In terms of what the administration does in terms of bringing back coal jobs, is there a disconnect there between what they’re doing and what states like Nevada are doing on clean energy.
A: The coal industry is no longer viable. It’s too expensive. And it’s expensive not only to produce, but also what it does to the environment. And so that’s why, I saw they were going to go to court for 30 jobs, I think it was in Wyoming. What a joke that is. It’s just something this administration has talked about that is really, factually meaningless. My dad was a miner; I like mining. I’m not against coal, mining, it just doesn’t work in the present environment.
Q: The Obama administration made a lot of steps toward a clean energy environment. Is rolling those accomplishments back over the next four years going to be too much to recover from?
A: I don’t think that what Pruitt is trying to do...most of what they’re trying to do is going to get knocked out in the courts anyways, because it’s outrageous what they’re trying to do. And I’m glad you mentioned the incentives that we have for solar.
The last big spending bill we had was something that I negotiated with, with Mitch McConnell, and at 3 o’clock in the morning, I sent my chief of staff who was my negotiator, I said that they give me the tax credits, or I’m walking away from the deal. And so we got the deal. And so I’m very happy about that, I’m very proud of that, I’ve talked to people here at this convention, this conference, this summit, and they’re all excited about the long-term tax credits we have for solar.
We used to get tax credits before but it was usually for a year at a time, and you can’t plan ahead. These people are planning ahead, and solar is here. Solar now in most places is cheaper than natural gas.
Q: Is there someone in the Senate Democratic caucus or in Nevada’s delegation who can fill your shoes and draw that line in the sand over investments in solar?
A: Well I certainly hope so. I hope the whole Nevada delegation — look at what it’s done for Nevada. We have 31,000 renewable energy jobs in Nevada. We have more solar per capita than any other state in the union. So all they have to do is look at what it’s done for Nevada. As Governor Sandoval mentioned today, and as we all know, solar alone — $7 billion worth of financial gain to our state.
Q: In terms of what the governor has done for renewable energy, have you ever served with another governor who has done as much on that?
A: Well renewable energy is a — most governors have never had the opportunity. It’s a new deal, it’s become big time during the last eight or nine years. And Governor Sandoval has not been perfect, but he’s been really good. There’s a few things he did in the Legislature that I wish he had done differently, but he’s been good. And I am very happy that we’re co-sponsoring this summit together, because he’s been, as I‘ve said for a number of years now, publicly and privately, I think he’s been a very good governor.
Q: Is there anything specific he did in the last legislative session that you disagreed with? Maybe the veto of the Renewable Portfolio Standards bill?
A: I already made my comments on him. He’s not perfect, but he’s really, really good.
Q: In terms of the Clean Power Plan, the administration said this week that they’re planning to start the regulatory process to cancel that. Are you concerned at all about that, do you think that’s going to be stopped up in the courts?
A: Of course in Nevada we don’t have any (coal plants), they’re all being phased out, so it’s not going to have any effect on Nevada. But the country, it’s also one of those things that’s a lot of fluff and no substance, because the industry has already made the choice. Because coal is too expensive, and economics — not only in the production of electricity and also what it does to the environment. So it’s not going to save any jobs. The industry said a long time ago that they’re going with something else.
Q: What do you think is driving this subsidization of coal industry. Is this Mitch McConnell, is this the Koch brothers, is there someone who is propping this up?
A: Well European nations — I had dinner with Al Gore last night. European nations can’t imagine what’s going on. And the right, we simply should recognize it’s not right to subsidize these companies who have done so much.
You know, some people compare it to the cigarette industry who for many, many years covered up the danger of tobacco. And of course they went to court, and found that the tobacco companies had covered things. It’s now no secret, it’s the way it happened, it’s in the law books. There are many who believe, there have been many kinds of articles and books written on this, that the cover-up of the coal, gas and energy companies generally using fossil fuel, it’s a cover-up.
They’ve phonied all kinds of studies to show that all this stuff in the air is not harmful. It’s just wrong. It’s just like cigarettes, it’s the same situation. And now there’s legal action being taken to prove that, it’s going to be just like cigarettes.
Q: Congressman John Shimkus from Illinois is going to be in Reno next week. He’s tried to make revitalizing and restarting the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository a big priority. The administration has included money for it in its proposed budget. You’ve been at the front line of opposing Yucca Mountain. You said a year or two ago that it was dead — do you still hold that opinion?
A: The answer is yes. Take a look at Yucca Mountain. What is out there? Nothing. A hole in the side of a mountain. All the equipment has been junked. (Former Energy Secretary Ernest) Moniz will tell you that. That’s when I first learned it. They’ve ground up all the equipment, and sold it for scrap metal. No one knows, as the (Congressional Budget Office) announced recently, how much it would cost to restart Yucca Mountain. They don’t know, because the contingencies are so high. A hundred billion dollars? A hundred ten billion? Lots of money — where are they going to get the money for that?
They’ve already established that on-site storage is safe, dry cask containment. They established a long time ago you can't ship this stuff all over the country. With terrorism, where it is today, that would be an easy one to cause a lot of trouble with these canisters of nuclear waste.
Q: The moves that Congressman Shimkus and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have taken, do they concern you at all in terms of them trying to restart this project?
A: Does it concern me? What concerns me is their lack of recognizing reality. There’s a couple of the same people who don’t believe in climate change. They’re part of the same crowd that doesn't allow us to study what’s happening in our world today. Think about this. The three latest hurricanes, they have created already 350 billion dollars worth of damage, and we can’t study? So, sure I’m concerned. I’m concerned because they’re not playing with a full deck of reality.
Q: In terms of preventing a lot of the things that the Trump administration wants to get done, obviously a lot of Democratic Attorneys General have filed suit against plans to stop the Clean Power Plan, but the main way to stop that is taking a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate in 2018. Do you think there’s a path to do that?
A: Sure. We’re two short in the Senate, and I think it’s very probable that we’ll be able to retake the Senate. And I have felt much better about the House in recent weeks. There’s no question in my mind that this election coming up in 2018 is going to be a change election. The House is right now; it’s hard for Ryan to put together a 218 (member majority). After this election he won’t be able to. He may not be in line to be the Speaker, because they could lose it all.
Q: What in the last few weeks has changed your opinion or changed your analysis in what could happen in the House?
A: Well, part of it is that I went to Washington and spent 10 days or so there, had the opportunity to meet with Senator (Chuck) Schumer, Senator (Dick) Durbin and a number of other senators. I appeared and spoke at the ranking senators luncheon. I met with (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi and I met with (Congressman Steny) Hoyer to talk about what’s going on in the House, and they gave me confidence that what’s going on in politics in America today is going to benefit Democratic House members, for those wanting to be in the house.
I met here, one of the mayors who came to this conference, (Greg) Stanton from Phoenix. He’s running for the House. And as backwards as Arizona is on a lot of things, they’re way ahead of us on reapportionment, because they have a nonpartisan commission that determines every 10 years the different congressional seats, what the maps will look like. And they’re all pretty competitive in Arizona. So he feels comfortable he’ll win that seat, it’s a seat that the woman who’s in there now, been there a long time, is going to run for the Senate against Jeff Flake. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity around the country.
Q: Do you think Nevada needs to look at the reapportionment process when it comes up in 2020?
A: I think the courts are going to make all states take a look at how they’re doing reapportionment, because I have seen what’s happened around the country, and I think everybody should take a look at what Arizona’s done.
Q: While we’re talking about Congress, I’m curious to get your thoughts on how you think Senator Dean Heller, your former colleague has handled the last several months…
A: No, I’m not going to talk about Senator Heller. I am, as everyone knows, a huge backer of Jacky Rosen. I helped her come out of the private sector into the public sector. She’s been stunningly good. In fact, Chuck Schumer told me, and he’s known in political circles as having an astute mind politically, that she remind him of the movie The Natural with Robert Redford. She is a natural, she is so good. I think she’s going to be a good statewide candidate.
Q: To wrap up, Senator, most of the Democratic candidates for statewide and congressional offices seem to be set, but there is one major primary between Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak and his fellow commissioner Chris Giunchigliani. Do you plan to endorse in that race?
A: Oh sure. I endorsed Sisolak a long time ago. And I told my friend Chris G that I had endorsed him already, and I think that he’s set to win that primary. If she stays in the race, he’ll win it, and I feel very comfortable with him in the general election. He’s a man who has done a lot.
He’s an astute businessman, he’s been on the Board of the Regents, he understands the state and he is working the county through some of the most difficult times, not the least of which is when we had this terrible situation with 58 people killed, over 500 wounded. He has stepped forward as the person who has been so outstanding in how that’s been handled. I sent him a text, told him how proud I was of how he’s handled this.