When Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, took over the environmental group founded by John Muir, it was an organization divided on a number of issues — including one in Nevada’s backyard. There was a split between whether to support large-scale utility projects in the Mojave Desert that could degrade habitat for the protected desert tortoise.
In June, during an event in Reno supporting Sierra Club-endorsed candidates, Brune spoke to the Nevada Independent about these issues and how the state fits into the group’s agenda.
“We want to get clean energy online as fast as we can, and of course we want to do it in a way that’s smart and thoughtful and doesn’t undermine the protections that Sierra Club members and many others have fought for decades to secure,” he said in an interview before the event.
Brune and Brian Beffort, the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter director, said they made decisions to endorse their slate of candidates (here’s a full list of their endorsements) based on their track records on the environment, putting a big emphasis on their support for clean energy.
“Our perspective regardless of the state is you need a locally appropriate energy mix on the grid that is powered by clean energy — whatever combination of wind plus solar plus geothermal plus storage that makes sense that is connected to a modernized and efficient grid,” Brune said.
In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, the group’s Toiyabe Chapter, which represents Nevada and the Eastern Sierra, came out strongly for Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who lost to her colleague and board Chairman Steve Sisolak. The group has yet to throw its support behind Sisolak but has come out against Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the Republican in the race, arguing that it “would be a disaster for our environment” if he won.
Here’s our interview with Brune and Beffort:
Q: Tonight’s event is “Swing Nevada Green.” Why is that important for the Sierra Club?
Brune: Just about everything that we care about and have worked for decades for is at stake in this election, clearly across the country but also in Nevada. There is probably no more important state than Nevada for the growth of clean energy, fighting climate change [and] protecting public lands. There are a bunch of key races here in the state that we are mobilizing all of our members in the state to get active on and encouraging people in the country to contribute to.
Q: Why is it the ‘most important’ state? Is that a political thing or the issues in Nevada?
Brune: Both. If you look at climate and clean energy, the potential for Nevada to become a leading state, if not the leading state, is pretty profound, both in terms of solar potential [and] storage… We see the state leadership not yet fully taking advantage of the opportunity. From that perspective alone, it’s important because we can start to see states like Nevada begin to export clean energy… We see protection of public lands as a big issue as well. And electorally there are a lot of races that matter.
Q: Speaking of exporting, I’m curious where the Sierra Club is on grid regionalization. [Note: Under the current system, each Western state effectively regulates its own grid. Many argue that grid regionalization would make it easier to sell energy across state lines]. The argument that is made on the solar side is it will help balance the West’s resources and sort of distribute the energy out. But there’s also the argument that’s made that if you bring in states that have a more coal dominant portfolio, you’re diluting the [renewable portfolio standards] that you have in California or Nevada.
Brune: We agree on both points. Conceptually, in theory, grid regionalization could be quite helpful because it could offer an opportunity to share clean energy resources across state borders and potentially bring more clean energy online more quickly. [But] if it’s not designed properly, you could have states or utilities like Pacificorp that are able to extend the life of their coal plants beyond what they are normally able to do. So we are looking at each proposal pretty carefully to see if it could… meet the opportunity to advance and accelerate clean energy without extending the life of coal plants.
Q: How do you balance the desire for more clean energy on one hand — doing that in part through utility-scale solar and wind projects — and some of the conservation concerns with the desert tortoise and habitat? How does the Sierra Club look at that?
Brune: How do we look at it is closely. And how do we manage it is carefully. Not to minimize the issue. When I first came to the Sierra Club, it was a couple of years into the Obama administration and there were a number of different proposals being offered — large-scale solar particularly on the California side. Over the last eight or nine years, we have opposed outright a couple proposals. We had concerns about many others that we worked to mitigate and eventually came to be in support of. And of course we have supported the vast majority without any qualifications. We want to get clean energy online as fast as we can, [but] of course we want to do it in a way that’s smart and thoughtful and doesn’t undermine the protections that Sierra Club members and many others have fought for decades to secure. So whether it’s protecting people’s views or protecting wildlife, those are values we take pretty seriously. We don’t want to accelerate clean energy development at the expense of lands or wildlife.
Q: At this point in the energy game, I’m curious what role, if any, natural gas should play now. I know in the beginning of all of this, the Sierra Club was a little waffle-y on natural gas. [Note: The national Sierra Club had originally supported some gas development as a way to transition from coal, a position that angered many members. It has since walked back from that stance.] But now, in 2018, how quickly should the transition be to move beyond natural gas like you guys are doing with the Beyond Coal Campaign?
Like most of the community, the Sierra Club’s position on gas has evolved as more information about gas has come out. We want to see it be used as little as possible. We are opposing any new natural gas infrastructure — that includes power plants, export terminals, pipelines and new fracking proposals. And we are actively working to shut down existing gas and have those power plants be replaced by 100 percent clean renewable energy. …The world knows much more about the impacts of natural gas than we did before. And secondly, clean energy has plummeted in costs. Nevada just set the record for lowest solar installations of anywhere in the country. The price of storage is coming down dramatically. Particularly for gas we are now seeing solar plus storage cheaper, and [it’s] a lot less dirty.
Q: Turning to endorsements, why did the group endorse Rep. Jacky Rosen over Sen. Dean Heller in the Senate race?
Where should I start? She has a stronger record on the environment. She believes climate change is real. She believes in protecting public lands. She has been a good representative voting in favor of EPA funding.
Dean Heller was pretty integral in saving the solar [investment tax credit] and has done some work on clean energy… So what evaluation goes into that?
Well you can just look at his record and his votes on a lot of different items, from EPA funding to a lot of the riders that have attempted…to undermine clean air, clean water safeguards, mercury…, the Arctic. It’s hard to argue, beyond a few examples, that he is a champion of the environment.
Q: Are all of these candidates Democrats?
Beffort: No [Note: the group endorsed Republican Assemblywoman Jill Tolles] and for the record, Sierra Club is a nonpartisan organization and we would love to be able to endorse more Republicans and more non-party candidates…. Every single one of these issues are not Democrat or Republican issues. They are American issues and somehow they have become politicized and partisan over the past and it’s a shame there aren’t more Republicans on this list. But we would love to endorse more Republicans who have a strong environmental stance.
Q: Is there anything you want to add about the slate and your involvement in Nevada?
Brune: This is a big election for all of us and the things we care about. Nevada is a key state for us. We do find a bigger gap between our endorsed candidates and our opponents here than in other places. We think that there are both strong champions in the state and then we have some folks who, for one reason or another, aren’t interested in advancing clean energy or protecting public lands as much as their constituents are so we think it is a fruitful place for us to be mobilizing our supporters.
Q: Why do you think that gap exists?
Brune: I think that there are cultural differences and that the Republican Party here hasn’t yet seized an opportunity to lead, particularly on clean energy.
This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.