Now do mining

Yay. And yet...
Gov. Steve Sisolak signing a bill to increase Nevada renewable energy requirements. Governor's press office photo.

If gold mines were coal mines, new Nevada clean energy standards would not have been signed into law Monday.

Nevada has been blessed (or cursed, if you’re a fossil fuel enthusiast) with negligible fossil fuel resources. The coal and oil industries don’t muscle politicians around in Nevada.

That what the gold industry is for.

Via “emergency” passage, legislators rushed a bill to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk last week for a glorious Earth Day signing Monday. The bill requires half the electricity used in the state to come from renewable resources by 2030.

Right now about 20 percent of Nevada’s electricity is generated by renewable resources.

Most of the rest, more than 60 percent, is generated by natural gas, which has displaced coal in Nevada, as it has in much of the nation. A lot of that is due to the impulse, on display beneath a canape of Carson City blossoms Monday, to move the country to cleaner energy.

But it is economics, not woke politicians, that is rendering coal obsolete. Whether as a fuel or from the standpoint of building a generating plant, natural gas is a lot cheaper than coal. (So, increasingly, is solar.) This is why coal mining jobs have continued to disappear despite Trump’s ludicrous promise to bring the industry back.

Minerals in Nevada, thankfully, aren’t mined to generate electricity. The only practical (to use the adjective generously) purpose of mining in Nevada is to assure the security of the nation’s strategic earring reserves.

But while Nevada ore isn’t mined to produce electricity, the mining industry uses a fair amount of it.

Nevada’s switch (not to be confused with the server farm, which is also a huge user of electricity) from coal to natural gas and renewable sources was punctuated a couple years ago when the last of four units at the Reid Gardner coal plant shut down. Now there are only two coal plants still operating in the state.

The North Valmy plant near Winnemucca has two units. NV Energy, which operates the plant, plans to shut one of the units down at the end of 2021, and the other at the end of 2025.

The other coal plant still operating in Nevada is somewhat unusual. It’s weirdly new for a coal plant, starting operation in 2008 as coal-fired plants around the country were shutting down in droves. It is not owned by an electric utility. And while some of the power is sold on to the grid, the plant really has only one primary customer.

The owner, and the customer, is Newmont Mining. The mining corporation’s TS coal plant generates 242 megawatts, which mostly supply power to Newmont’s operations. Formulas for how many homes a megawatt can power vary, but a probably pretty conservative estimate is a 242 MW of coal-fired plant can power 145,000 homes.

To reiterate, gold mining doesn’t produce electricity, but it uses rather a lot of it.

Back in 2007, when NV Energy’s dumb plan to build big new coal-fired units near Ely was being put out of its misery by Harry Reid, the Legislature passed a law requiring the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection to prepare a state greenhouse gas emissions inventory every four years. The most recent one was produced in 2016, and this is what it says about Newmont’s 242 MW coal-fired power plant:

“It is likely that this plant will be in operation well past 2030.”

What the hell?

Earlier this year Newmont fought off an $18 billion hostile takeover bid from Barrick, instead forming an unholy alliance with it’s long-time arch-rival for the purpose of operating about 80 percent of Nevada’s gold production together, in a joint venture. In collusion, if you will.

The transnational mining conglomerate détente was accompanied by a presentation titled “Realizing the Missing Billions for Shareholders,” which asserted the venture will result in an estimated $4.7 billion “of synergy value shared between Barrick and Newmont shareholders” without issuing any additional shares.

In other words, yes, it might be expensive for Newmont (and presumably its synergistic new partner, Barrick) to close down a new-by-industry-standards coal-fired power plant and replace it with cleaner energy.

But they can afford it.

That Newmont was allowed to build a coal-fired power plant in the 21st century in the first place is pretty amazeballs. Perhaps Reid’s later-career zeal for clean energy was no match for his much longer, deeper lover affair with mining.

Monday, as the governor, legislative leaders and virtually every environmental and conservation group in the state issued a steady stream of congratulatory hosannas about boosting renewable energy by 2030, a couple hundred miles east along the Union Pacific railroad (over which the coal is delivered from Wyoming), Newmont’s coal-fired power plant was chugging along, as it is projected to do “well past 2030.”

You’d think someone might have said something.

Environmental transgressions committed by Nevada’s massive mining operations are not limited to CO2 emissions from a coal-fired anachronism. Far from it.

Remember how Dean Heller used to natter on about sage grouse habitat? What he was really nattering on about was his support for mining’s continued destruction thereof. The industry’s water contamination is infamous, world-class, and perpetual — it keeps on going, all Energizer Bunny-like, even after the mining stops. Environmentalists in the state have long fought to make the industry get mercury, including airborne mercury, under control. And reflecting the size of the industry, and the fact that let’s face it gold mining is pretty filthy, no state has more toxic releases per square mile than Nevada.

And no discussion of Nevada’s mining industry is complete without noting that the industry perpetually humiliates Nevada and Nevadans by getting away with paying a farcically small state mining tax.

But on the bright side (where I’m always looking), it’s a good thing Newmont and Barrick mine gold and not coal. Because if the companies, so beloved by Nevada’s political class for so long, mined coal, not only would no one have talked about Newmont’s coal plant at the renewable energy bill signing ceremony Monday, no one would have talked about anything at all. If Newmont and Barrick mined coal, there would have been no clean energy bill to sign.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.

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