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January 22, 2018

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The people and politics behind Sen. Harry Reid’s Clean Energy Summit 7.0


Steve Marcus

Former President Bill Clinton, left, waits backstage with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid before giving a keynote address during the National Clean Energy Summit 5.0 at the Bellagio Tuesday, August 7, 2012.

As a young man, Harry Reid discovered a desert oasis not far from his Searchlight home, across the border in Fort Piute, Calif.

Water poured out of craggy, volcanic rock. Lily pads and cattails grew.

“It was a freak of nature,” Reid said.

The site looked markedly different when Reid returned from college to visit. Humans had trashed it.

“That’s where I became an environmentalist,” he said.

Reid will put his environmentalism — and power — on display Thursday when he welcomes energy and political elites to Las Vegas for the Clean Energy Summit 7.0 at Mandalay Bay.

Since Reid entered federal politics in 1982, few lawmakers have pushed harder for clean energy initiatives. And with Reid leading the Senate, few politicians have a more powerful network.

Reid helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2009 economic stimulus bill to build renewable projects in the state. He won a $343 million federal loan guarantee for the One Nevada Line, a transmission line that connects Nevada’s wind, solar and geothermal projects to the regional power grid. He lobbied the Obama administration with letters in support of the project, and when it looked like the line might threaten sage grouse habitat, Reid helped reroute the line.

The clean energy conference started after Reid attended a similar event in Northern Nevada eight years ago, the same year he started assailing the coal industry. Reid showed up to that conference with a handful of Nevada maps, pinpointing locations ripe for renewable production.

The next year he started his own summit.

Over the years, the summit has grown up from a roundtable for insiders to a must-see event for political operatives, policy wonks and Nevada leaders.

Republicans call Reid a threat to traditional fossil fuels, such as coal, and the communities that produce them.

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T. Boone Pickens, from left, shown with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.; John Podesta, President of the Center for American Action Fund; and UNLV President David Ashley, has proposed building windmills in Texas to free natural gas now used to generate electricity for use as a motor vehicle fuel to cut consumption of foreign oil in the United States.

But Democrats and environmentalists aren’t the only ones invited to Reid’s summit. Over the years, the guest list has included oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

“I don’t think these summits would be successful had I just brought in the Democratic team from Washington,” Reid said.

Reid and…

Campaign fundraising: The alternative energy industry is a strong Reid backer. He collected more in campaign contributions from the industry — $100,760 — than any other politician in 2010, the last time he ran for election.

Coal:"Coal makes us sick,” Reid told Fox Business in 2008. Reid has helped squelch plans to build at least two new coal plants in Nevada and pushed hard for NV Energy to close its four coal-fired power plants. The company announced this year it would replace coal production with natural gas and solar by 2017.

Crude oil: Domestic crude production is higher than it has been since the 1970s, and Reid says that’s not going to end soon. With unrest in the Middle East and continuing conflicts in Venezuela, Reid said he’s glad to see the uptick in domestic production. U.S. crude production will hit 9.3 million barrels a day in 2015, an almost 50 percent jump in seven years. “I am really happy that we are able to produce oil in America, and I hope we continue doing that until it is no longer necessary,” Reid said.

Who’s headlining this year?

Hillary Clinton: She carried Nevada in the 2008 presidential caucus, and she’ll be the summit’s keynote speaker. With all signs pointing to another White House run in 2016, the former first lady and secretary of state can use the summit to tout her vision on energy. She and Reid are close. He encouraged Clinton to take the secretary of state job after she lost to President Barack Obama. And her position on energy mimics Reid’s; both support domestic production of crude and natural gas in the short term and a move to renewables in the future. This will be Clinton’s second of three scheduled visits to Las Vegas this year.

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President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Sempra U.S. Gas & Power's Copper Mountain Solar 1 photovoltaic plant Wednesday, March 21, 2012 south of Boulder City.

MGM Resorts International: It’s no coincidence that CEO Jim Murren will take the stage. MGM Resorts has been a leader in conservation. The company updated many of its Strip properties to harvest and recycle energy, and it recently added a 6.2 megawatt rooftop solar installation at the Mandalay Bay convention center. MGM Resorts partnered with NRG Solar on the project. Since 1989, the resorts company has been Reid’s No. 1 donor. The company has pumped $305,590 into Reid’s campaigns and political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Duke Energy: Duke, the country’s largest electric power holding company, is behind the Searchlight Wind Energy Project, an 87-turbine, 200-megawatt wind farm in Reid’s hometown. With Reid’s strong support, the wind farm won approval from the Department of Interior in 2013. But not all of Duke’s projects are renewable. It runs 23 natural gas- or oil-powered plants fed by fracking and traditional drilling, and 15 coal-fired power plants in five states. Coal emissions are twice as dirty as natural gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In February, one of the company’s storage ponds spilled coal ash into a North Carolina river, and this month, 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the Ohio River during a transfer the company managed.

John Podesta: He’s .Obama’s climate change counselor and previously served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Podesta also has been advising Hillary Clinton since she left her secretary of state job. Podesta founded the Center for American Progress (another guest), a left-leaning think tank that advocates for renewable energy. He and his brother, Tony, started a lobbying firm now known as the Podesta Group, one of Washington’s top policy influencers.

Sempra Energy: The company made headlines after it quashed plans to build a 1,200-megawatt, $2 billion coal-fired power plant in 2006. Sempra owns the Copper Mountain solar complex near Boulder City, one of the largest solar plants in America. The third phase, to be completed next year, will serve the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and city of Burbank. Sempra owns San Diego Gas and Electric and powers the region without coal. About 24 percent of its electricity comes from renewables and two-thirds from natural gas. Sempra has donated $11,000 to Reid over the past three election cycles.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship between MGM Resorts and NRG Solar. The two companies are partners on a solar project at Mandalay Bay. | (September 2, 2014)

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