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April 18, 2014

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ENERGY:

Gibbons mum as govs take stand on burning coal

Other Western leaders call for tough emissions limits on old plants as well as new

The Western Governors’ Association’s list of energy policy suggestions for the Obama administration is mostly standard fare.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil, America needs more public transportation, fuel-efficient cars and renewable energy, the organization says.

But one proffered policy stands out: a proposal that all new coal-fired power plants be built with “near-zero greenhouse gas emissions” within 10 years and that all existing coal plants have some kind of carbon capture and storage technology installed no later than 2030.

Short of the line taken by some progressive environmental groups — that there should be no new coal burning power plants at all — it is one of the most specific and aggressive stances on coal that’s come out during this election and inauguration season.

With its letter to President-elect Barack Obama, the governors association joined the throng of advocacy and environmental groups trying to influence early policy initiatives.

So did Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has stood in defense of three traditional coal plants proposed in Nevada repeatedly over the past two years, support the letter?

The association didn’t ask for his approval because the governor’s office stopped being a dues-paying member July 1.

Annual dues are $36,000. Of the 23 states that qualify for the Western Governors’ Association, Kansas, Texas and Hawaii also are not dues-paying members.

Although a representative of the governor’s office attended the meetings where the letter’s contents were decided, the representative didn’t have a vote on whether to send the letter. That vote was unanimous.

But whether Gibbons had a vote or not, spokesman Dan Burns said his boss has opinions on it.

“There are certainly things he didn’t agree with. There are also things he agreed with,” Burns said Wednesday. The governor supports parts of the letter that focus on job creation through development of alternative energy sources, Burns said.

“Part of his energy policy, whether it be coal plants or geothermal plants in Northern Nevada or solar plants in Southern Nevada, (is to) create jobs and hopefully one day make this state an energy exporter,” Burns said.

Burns said he did not know why the governor is not a dues-paying member of the association, nor who represented the governor in talks over the letter, nor whether the governor supports the suggestions about near-zero emissions from coal plants.

This isn’t the only Mountain/West alliance that Gibbons has shied away from. Most of Nevada’s neighbors have signed on to both the Western Climate Initiative, an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Western states, and to California’s fuel efficiency standards, which are stricter than federal standards. Gibbons has not supported California emissions standards and signed Nevada on to be an observing rather than participating member of the Climate Initiative.

Some environmentalists wonder whether, as with the emissions standards and Western Climate Initiative, the governor’s lapse in Western Governors’ Association dues is due to ideological differences rather than fiscal issues.

But environmental groups are applauding the letter and the slew of others like it encouraging Obama to fulfill campaign promises to fight climate change.

“It’s pretty clear that if you’re going to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, there’s going to have to be some way of dealing with not only proposed new coal plants but existing coal plants as well,” said Charles Benjamin, Nevada director of Western Resource Advocates.

Although an NV Energy spokesman declined to comment on the governors association letter, utility executives have said they are willing to install carbon capture technology when it is commercially available. NV Energy and two other developers proposing plants here have signed agreements with the Nevada Environmental Protection Division promising to install the technology in the future.

It just isn’t ready for prime time yet, they say.

Environmentalists question the wisdom of permitting any new plants without carbon control equipment.

Benjamin says the agreements between the state and power plant developers will be impossible to enforce, in part because they are too open-ended. Because it’s likely to be much more difficult to retrofit existing coal plants with carbon capture equipment then to fit new plants with the devices, Benjamin said utilities will claim it is too expensive to upgrade older plants even once the technology is available.

“It has to be built in from the time you design the facility,” he said.

He added that geologists have said Nevada is also unlikely to be a good location to store carbon captured from smoke stacks underground.

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