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April 19, 2014

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Q+A: Nevada Conservation League Executive Director Scot Rutledge

The grades are in and Gov. Jim Gibbons is not exactly at the top of his class, but he has skated by with a C- on conservation and environmentalism for his first year in the Statehouse.

Yes, that's the same Jim Gibbons who supports construction of three new coal-fired power plants, declined to join the Western Climate Initiative, promoted coal-to-liquid fuels in his first speech as governor, vetoed a bill that would have prevented homeowners associations from restricting use of solar panels in their communities, and created a state climate change panel while waffling on the existence of global warming.

The Nevada Conservation League released its legislative scorecard last week. Each senator and assemblyman is issued a percentage grade based on how he or she votes on a host of conservation and environmental bills, a rather empirical way of judging the class.

Since the group endorses candidates during election season, it also grades them to see whether they keep their promises. Not surprisingly, the league did not endorse Gibbons, a guy who while in Congress averaged 8 percent from the national League of Conservation Voters, which thrice scored him a zero.

This is the first time the state's highest office has been evaluated. They've decided to pass out letter grades for the governor.

So how did he arrive at a passing grade without a voting record?

We asked Nevada Conservation League Executive Director Scot Rutledge to explain what criteria were used to grade Gibbons, what the governor's done for the planet lately and how the heck a guy who loves coal so much can pass any environmental test.

Q: Are you being soft on Gibbons, who had an abysmal record on the environment in Congress and hasnt improved much, according to many activists?

A lot of people expect environmental or conservation groups to be upset even when they are successful - that it's never good enough. This legislative session was a really good one and the governor only vetoed one conservation bill out of a few dozen that crossed his desk. As governor of Nevada he has shown some marked improvement on legislation that is good for conservation in this state.

But most of the bills he signed this year were veto-proof: All but three of the 14 conservation bills the governor signed were unanimous, and all but one had a greater than two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature.

We feel like this was a good session for conservation. A lot of things are worked out before it comes to a vote on the floor. The governor's staff and people in his administration provided testimony on these bills. The governor was part of that and did not stand in the way of progress on a lot of this legislation. As we put it, it's a mixed bag.

Other than taking out the veto pen only once on conservation issues, the only other positive action the scorecard mentions is creation of two committees, the Climate Change Advisory Committee and the Renewable Energy Transmission Committee. Those committees haven't even issued reports yet, so how much credit can you really give him for that?

They're great steps in the right direction. We'll have to wait and see what recommendations come out of the committees and how he acts on them to see whether the governor should get any credit. We feel like it was the right direction for the governor to create a Climate Change Advisory Committee. We're not going to give him an A for creating a committee. At the same time we're not going to fail him for not adding Nevada as a member of the Western Climate Initiative.

Declining to join the initiative and supporting coal are two places where the scorecard says Gibbons lost points. What else contributed?

One thing that we didn't mention in the scorecard that I believe is indicative of where we are in terms of addressing climate change is that the governor's administration - the Nevada Environmental Protection Department - has come out repeatedly in opposition to regulating greenhouse gases though they have said repeatedly they have the right to. As governor, if he wanted to do something about regulation of greenhouse gases, he would. But we haven't given up on this governor.

But how can a pro-coal governor get a C-?

We have a governor who supports coal, who mentioned coal liquefaction in his first speech as governor. That's obviously not the direction the state should be going in for energy production. The governor has played both sides, talking about renewable energy but promoting coal. He didn't deserve a failing grade. He did enough this year so far to warrant a passing grade. But we're still waiting for him to exhibit some real leadership on the issue of energy in the state.

Even the governor's talk about supporting renewable energy seems like just that - talk.

There is something problematic with the governor's position. The word is out that the governor wants to develop renewable energy and sell it to states like California that require utilities to purchase clean energy instead of electricity from coal. And that's great. But why would he insist on allowing coal plants to be built in our state to sell power to Nevada but look to renewable resources to sell to California? Maybe the governor's concern for renewable energy is not with environmental impact but with economic potential.

So is he a real advocate of renewable energy?

Whatever the driver is for the development of renewable energy, whether it's based on the environment or the economics - the jobs that come with it, the money Nevada could make - it's the right reason. I wouldn't take any reason off the table.

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