Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.
Coming up: The Legislative session is starting next week. We’ll have a preview of topics we’re watching, from climate change to education to health care, on the website this weekend. And for more coverage, my colleague Riley Snyder is starting a newsletter focused on the session. Few people know more about the inner-workings of the Legislature. The newsletter is called “Behind the Bar,” and I highly recommend you sign-up for his Carson City dispatches.
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The statistics are repeated everywhere from county commission meetings to the Legislature.
The federal government manages about 85 percent of Nevada’s land. And one agency alone, the Bureau of Land Management, manages more than 65 percent of the state’s land for often conflicting uses: conservation, recreation, mining, ranching, oil leasing, renewable development.
If the federal government plays a key role in overseeing public land, new presidents play a key role in setting priorities for how those lands should be developed and protected.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration’s policies put an emphasis on opening up land to industry. The administration rolled back conservation protections, sped up permits and encouraged fossil fuel development across public land, often contributing to the climate crisis.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration outlined a vastly different path, one wrapped inside his climate agenda. In an executive order, President Biden outlined a public land strategy focused more on conservation and promoting renewable energy, including solar, geothermal and wind.
The order directs the Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, to pause oil and gas leases on public land and look for ways to double renewable production. It calls for creating a Civilian Climate Corps to help restore and protect public land. The order also commits the U.S. to a national goal of conserving 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030. And it aims to center environmental justice in tackling climate change across federal agencies.
The move was significant. For one, cities and states have been forced to grapple with climate change on their own. The executive order, Biden said at a signing ceremony on Wednesday, offered a “unified national response” to what is an issue where impacts are not isolated to one city or state. But perhaps more importantly, the executive order moves the boundaries around which future debates about climate action occur. It resets the dialogue with clear national goals.
Biden was careful not to paint his strategy as a black-and-white tradeoff between conservation and development on public land. His public lands policy is part of his climate change plan.
And “when I think of climate change, I think of jobs,” Biden said.
Biden said his plan would create jobs in renewable development on public land and in activities that help promote conservation and climate goals — activities like carbon sequestration.
To learn more about what it all means, I talked to Bret Birdsong, an environmental law professor at UNLV and a lawyer for the Department of Interior under the Obama administration. Birdsong most recently served on the Biden transition team for the agency. Here are a few takeaways:
Setting a new national priority: Wednesday’s executive orders were aimed at starting the hard work of organizing the federal government, a sweeping bureaucracy, around climate action. For public land managers, that could mean a big shift in how lands are developed.
“What they are really announcing is this whole of government climate initiative: to make climate central to everything that everybody does,” Birdsong said. “For public lands, that’s a really big thing, too, because the history of public lands and the laws that govern much of what happens on the public lands today are kind of legacies of the past. They weren’t created with climate in mind, although they provide some authority to address climate issues on public land.”
What does it mean in a state with little oil and gas production? Compared to other Western states, Nevada has historically seen little oil, gas and coal production. Although Biden’s review of oil and gas leases could help curb speculative leasing on public land, it will have little bearing on existing oil production in the state. A climate-focused approach to public lands will have more of an effect on renewable development and conservation, two issues called out in Biden’s executive order.
At times, improperly-located solar fields, transmission lines, geothermal plants and other clean energy infrastructure have clashed with conservation goals and efforts to protect endangered species. Birdsong said he views Biden, by committing to conservation and renewables, as trying to fuse the two issues — to encourage development in a way that doesn’t undermine the 30 percent by 2030 goal.
That doesn’t mean all tension will go away.
“I do think there’s going to be some tension,” Birdsong said. “But I also think that, right off the bat here, on Climate Day, the president is sort of announcing a framework in which hopefully that conservation side is going to be integrated into meeting climate goals.”
Birdsong foresees science playing a much more determinative role in planning than it did during the Trump administration. On conservation and siting renewables, Birdsong said, “the idea is going to be, in a very serious way, to reintegrate science into [the Bureau of Land Management’s] decision-making about how and where to do things on public lands.”
What the order doesn’t mention is mining. Meeting climate goals through electrification means more demand for minerals, such as lithium. How the Biden administration views mine permitting on public land remains an open question.
Environmental justice is at the center: Biden’s focus on environmental justice as part of the climate plan could also have a significant effect on land management.
“Native voices in public land management are going to be ascendant,” Birdsong said, noting a commitment Biden made on Tuesday to ensure the federal government respects tribal sovereignty.
At the same time, Birdsong noted, there is a growing “recognition that rural or small town communities are actually much more diverse than is commonly understood or accepted.”
He expects public land managers in a Biden administration to be focused on making sure Tribes are not only included in decisions but also that Native voices are given more authority.
“There’s a lot of potential for that in Nevada,” he said.
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
Regulating natural gas: Environmental groups are backing a legislative effort to require natural gas utilities to undergo more extensive planning before investing in new infrastructure that could become outdated as the state works toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. The legislation, which Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Las Vegas) plans to introduce, would help implement Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate plan, which calls for transitioning away from natural gas. I wrote more about the state climate plan and natural gas at the end of last year.
“It will be negotiated:” The Elko Daily Free Press spoke to Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) and Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) about what to expect in Carson City, especially around changing the Constitution’s mining tax provisions. Goicoechea, reporter Adella Harding writes, said he did not envision changes to the constitutional cap on mining tax, but he left room for some sort of compromise. “I don’t see that the 5 percent net [proceeds tax] will be changed, but I think the mining industry will work through it and agree to take off some exemptions to provide a little more revenue,” he said. “I think it will be negotiated.” The debate over raising the mining tax will be interesting to watch as the budget conversation unfolds. Amending the Constitution can take years. Will legislators be tempted to cut a compromise that brings in more revenue sooner?
- The wildfire effect: When an area burns, the effects can linger on the landscape. With precipitation comes the risk of hazards, including mudslides. “In the wake of [California’s] worst wildfire season on record, these rains carry with them a high risk of debris flows in the vicinity of burn scars. They also showcase a feature of California’s changing climate, with a seesaw between drought, heat and fires, and sudden winter storm-related flooding,” The Washington Post’s Diana Leonard and Andrew Freedman write.
Thacker Pass in a Biden administration: The AP’s Sam Metz and Scott Sonner write about the Trump administration giving the final approval to the Thacker Pass lithium mine, north of Winnemucca. They write: “the question of how to extract lithium and whether former President Donald Trump’s Department of Interior rushed a mine through the approval process could be an early test for Biden and his nominee for Interior secretary, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland.”
- Minerals and the climate transition: Jacob Holzman and Bill Holland, with S&P Global, offer an analysis of what mining regulation might look like during a Biden administration. They write that Biden, whose climate plan requires a supply chain of minerals like lithium and nickel, might take an approach similar to the one that Obama took with fracking.
Climate change and the Devils Hole pupfish: Amy Alonzo, with the Reno Gazette Journal, took a look at the history and the efforts to protect the Devils Hole pupfish. But this quote, from an aquatic ecologist for Death Valley National Park, definitely stood out: “We call it probably the most endangered fish species in the world that we know of… The Devils Hole pupfish living in 93-degree F water is at the upper physiological limits for fishes. With a changing climate, the Devils Hole pupfish are a bellwether for aquatic species living in arid springs.”
We are losing 1.2 trillion tons of ice a year: “The world’s frozen places are shrinking—and they’re disappearing at faster rates as time goes by. In the 1990s, the world was losing around 800 billion metric tons of ice each year. Today, that number has risen to around 1.2 trillion tons.” E&E News’ Chelsey Harvey reports on a new study calculating global sea ice loss.
Downwinders documentary: PBS Utah is airing a new documentary on the environmental fallout of nuclear testing in Nevada, according to St. George News. “There’s no question the government lied to everyone in Southern Utah about the potential risk of nuclear weapons testing from exposure to fallout. No question at all,” former Utah Rep. Jim Matheson said.