Citing the risks of global warming, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., penned a sharply worded letter to executives of four electric companies saying he would “use every means at my disposal” to prevent construction of three coal-fired power plants planned by the utilities in Nevada.
Reid’s opposition in that four-page letter dated July 24, 2007—just six months after he became the Senate majority leader—was the driving force behind the companies’ decisions not to build those three coal plants. The letter also signaled a new era of Reid’s environmentalism focused on global warming and renewable energy.
For decades, Reid has been a steward of conservation. Since he was first elected to Congress in 1982, he has been chiefly responsible for designating more than 3 million acres of public lands in Nevada as federally protected wilderness.
“I think if he were asked about his legacy, he would take great pride in his environmental record,” said former Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., who has known Reid since the summer of 1963 and met with him last week when he visited Washington. “I think he would point to that as one of his singular accomplishments in his tenure in Congress.”
In Nevada, Reid is known widely as an advocate of conservation, renewable energy, and efforts to fight climate change. In 1997, he founded the Tahoe Summit in response to concerns about water quality and environmental conditions in Lake Tahoe. Since 2008, a year after he told the energy executives he was going to fight to stop their proposals to build new coal plants, Reid has hosted the National Clean Energy Summit, an annual glitzy confab of the country’s biggest renewable-energy advocates brought together on the Las Vegas strip at Reid’s direction.
Inside the Beltway, Reid isn’t known for any of these things. He is known for moving bills to the floor that have a real shot at passing, keeping his caucus united, getting his members reelected, and rebutting GOP messaging. In his regular public appearances as majority leader, he rarely talks about the environment, clean energy, and climate change. In fact, his office at times seems to go out of its way not to highlight Reid’s impressive environmental record, including the five-year streak of perfect scores on the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard.
“I haven’t heard him reference his very high score, but we have certainly made his office aware of it and are very appreciative of him,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a lobbyist for the environmental group. “Maybe he doesn’t like to brag.”
Or maybe the majority leader doesn’t want to stick his neck out and further politicize an issue that’s already become increasingly polarized over the last several years. As the leader of the Senate, Reid’s stealthy actions speak louder than his soft-spoken words.
“There are layers of complexity in the amount of work being done behind the scenes that come after some of his very general statements about the environment,” said Scot Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League and Education Fund. Rutledge, who has held this position for seven years, has been in numerous meetings with the senator and touts a “great working relationship” with Reid’s staff. “We never feel like we’re in the dark on something,” Rutledge says.
Reid’s staff, led by three policy staffers devoted entirely to energy and environmental issues, has successfully rebutted Republican-led efforts to hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to control greenhouse-gas emissions. Whether it’s by purposefully not moving stand-alone appropriations bills funding EPA, which would invite fights over legislative riders defunding the agency’s climate programs, or by setting up a string of cover votes to protect politically vulnerable Democrats, Reid often seeks to stop the fight before it gets started.
"Part of the way he thinks about these things is to head off the controversial, try to limit the collisions that will occur in the future,” said Chris Miller, who until recently was the top energy and environment policy adviser to Reid.
In interviews with National Journal Daily, Miller and other former aides of Reid describe the senator as a pragmatic leader. Despite his deep commitment to environmental issues, he hasn’t pushed to the floor big energy and climate bills in recent years because they don’t attract the support needed for passage. Despite his efforts to rid Nevada of coal plants and ramp up its renewable-energy production, he doesn’t push lawmakers to do the same in their states. “He rarely forces his personal views on the caucus,” Miller says.
Thanks in part to Reid’s efforts, Nevada has only three coal plants left operating. “That is a little bit at odds with quite a few members of the Democratic caucus,” Miller acknowledges. “But he hasn’t gone after coal in other states.” Reid is waging a war against one of the remaining plants in his state, located within 60 miles of Las Vegas. Ironically, that plant is named Reid-Gardner. There is no relation to the senator.
One of the only energy and environment issues Reid is never quiet about is Yucca Mountain, the now-defunct nuclear-waste repository site 90 miles from Las Vegas that President Obama shut down in 2009 almost entirely because of Reid’s relentless objection.
People both inside and outside the Beltway know Reid hates Yucca Mountain. That outspoken opposition and how successful it has been in shuttering the site should be either a cautionary tale or promising sign (depending on your perspective) for what Reid is doing on the other environmental issues he is less vocal about as Senate majority leader.
This article appears in the March 7, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.