11/15/2007 04:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

King Coal's Mountain Redoubt

Las Vegas, NV -- At first blush, Nevada appears an unlikely choice for the coal industry to make its last stand in the mountain West. Coal is one of the few minerals the Silver State doesn't produce. Nevada enjoys America's biggest geothermal resource, ranks in the top five for solar, and has enormous wind reserves. By rights it should be a renewable energy powerhouse. Its legislature just passed a strong renewable electricity mandate, and the state is leading the nation with its legislation to set the first efficiency standards for light bulbs. Indeed, a new report by Environment America (formerly US PIRG) lauded Nevada as one of America's "rising stars", along with Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin. I am in Las Vegas today to thank Governor Gibbons and the legislature for precisely this leadership.

But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came out a couple of weeks ago against three new coal-fired power plants proposed for the state, and called for a global moratorium on new coal, the Barons of Black decided to make their stand here, launching a major media campaign and tapping into the deep relationship of Sierra Pacific Power, the biggest utility, with the state's business establishment.

The good news is, Nevadans are fighting back. This week saw the Nevada Clean Energy Coalition, a grassroots movement strongly supported by the Sierra Club, hit the airwaves with radio spots (click to listen), and a very cool, Nevada-style billboard right outside the convention hall where the presidential candidates will be debating tonight.

It's now clear that coal plants are being sold to the American people like sub-prime mortgages. All the insiders know their economics will shift dramatically in a few years when Congress finally deals with global warming, and the utilities building these plants are making sure that it is ordinary customers, not their shareholders, who get stuck with unaffordable energy costs when the piper finally has to be paid. The Nevada projects, specifically, provide that any upgrades required to deal with carbon emissions will have to be paid for by ratepayers. So, the utilities really don't care if coal pencils out; King Coal just wants guaranteed markets for a product which is otherwise about to become uncompetitive.

Nevada's neighbors have figured this out (it's the last state west of the Continental Divide that has an open door for coal), and Nevadans have been here before. When the rest of the country didn't want to handle nuclear waste, they thought Nevada would simply see it as another form of gambling and proposed developing Yucca Mountain as a dumping ground. They were wrong then, and I'm betting they're wrong with this strategy of dumping the West's next coal rush on a state that doesn't need it.