Innovations in Energy? Nevada Has Been At It A While

by Michael Green

As you can tell from the stories in the current Nevada's Washington Watch, the state and its leaders, and its federal officials inside the beltway, are looking at ways for Nevada to be an energy leader. And if you have followed the news for the past, oh, couple of decades, you know that Senator Harry Reid was quite vocal on this issue. But let's say a word for a couple of other Nevadans who were ahead of the curve.

One was Francis Newlands. He came to Nevada during the 1880s to handle the business interests of his father-in-law's estate. Since that father-in-law, William Sharon, had been one of the dominant magnates and movers on the Comstock Lode, that meant Newlands showed up with money and power. He used them both to win election to the House in 1892, serving five terms before taking one of Nevada's Senate seats in 1903. He served until his death late in 1917.

Newlands picked up on an issue that Nevada's longtime U.S. senator, William Morris Stewart, his friend and then his enemy, handed to him: reclamation. Newlands supported reclaiming federal land, selling it to pay for irrigation projects to help farmers turn the desert green. The Reclamation Act of 1902 bears his name.

Now, Newlands wasn't thinking energy; he was thinking water. But he got the U.S. government into the dam-building business. And not only after his death, the Bureau of Reclamation began looking seriously at building a dam somewhere on the Colorado River. You know where that led. While Hoover Dam was designed to provide water to southern California, it also became a major supplier of hydroelectric power to Arizona and Nevada. That seemed to work out pretty well.

The other Nevadan was Richard Bryan, who served these parts as an assemblyman (1969-73), state senator (1973-79), attorney general (1979-83), governor (1983-89), and U.S. senator (1989-2001). Soon after getting to the Senate, and going onto the Commerce Committee, he began pushing to improve federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. The first such legislation had set standards in 1978 of 18 mpg for cars. In 1990, Bryan proposed 40 mpg by 2001.

It didn't work, and if you think the recent strike by the United Auto Workers means the union and the automakers always have hated one another, think again. They worked together against Bryan's bill because it might hurt Detroit. And Detroit's longtime power in the House, John Dingell, responded by suggesting that a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain was the best idea he'd heard in a long time, or words to that effect.

Now the standards that the Obama administration set were close to what Bryan wanted. And of course Bryan was right: the better the fuel economy, the better it is for the environment, and the better the chances the U.S. isn't a victim of the slings and arrows of gasoline production and prices.

Those forms of energy weren't renewable, but they're worth remembering.