Groups say state striking power deals in private

Amid growing complaints about state government secrecy, environmental groups on Friday said state officials are privately negotiating agreements with developers of coal-fired power plants without public participation.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection wants memorandums of understandings from developers of coal-fired power plants about what steps they will take to capture carbon dioxide emissions from their plants from once the technology is available.

Nevadans for Clean Affordable Energy (NCARE), a group of environmental groups, on Friday said state officials should release copies of the draft memorandums before the documents are signed.

“Why is this being done behind closed doors?” asked Charles Benjamin, president of NCARE. “Let’s put it out in the sunshine.”

The Nevada Environmental Commission voted on Sept. 7 to have the agreements written out.

Lew Dodgion, chairman of the Nevada Environmental Commission, on Friday declined to comment on the complaint about secrecy. He referred questions to Leo Drozdoff, the environmental protection division’s administrator. Attempts to reach Drozdoff on Friday were unsuccessful because state offices were closed for the Nevada Day holiday.

The complaint comes on top of a series of recent events that many say suggest Gov. Jim Gibbons’ administration is unwilling to allow public participation in government.

Gibbons has not held any press conferences in the state’s capital since June 5, the end of the legislative session. The state’s chief executive scheduled a press conference two weeks ago to announce pending budget cuts but then canceled it before the conference was held.

The governor held a summit in Las Vegas earlier this month to discuss residential mortgage foreclosures. He met with 35 mortgage lenders — but only in private.

About two weeks ago, the Review-Journal filed a complaint with state officials about an incorrect meeting notice for a session conducted by Michael Elges, chief of Division of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Pollution Control. The notice showed the meeting notice was to take place at a nonexistent address, and a Review-Journal reporter asked that the meeting be started over.

Elges refused, but the state agency later rescheduled the workshop for another day.

State officials “could do a lot more to seek the public’s comment on a lot of issues,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

“There’s more they can do to open the process to make the public feel like it’s being included,” he said. Smith said the state could benefit by getting comments from experts on public issues.

Attempts to reach Melissa Subbotin, the governor’s spokeswoman, for comment on Friday failed.

The coal plant negotiations were launched in response to seven environmental groups’ petition to stop three companies from building coal-fired power plants. Sierra Pacific Resources, parent of Nevada Power Co., wants to build the Ely Energy Center at Ely. LS Power Group of East Brunswick, N.J, is developing a coal plant, also near Ely, and Sithe Global Power proposes to construct a coal-fired plant 12 miles from Mesquite.

Environmental groups say the massive quantities of carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants leads to global warming.

In a letter to the environmental commission, Gibbons backed the power projects and called for the power plant developers to sign memorandums of understanding pledging they would install carbon capture equipment to their plants once the technology becomes feasible. Benjamin, leader of the environmental groups, said the memorandums of understanding would not bind the coal plant developers to use carbon dioxide capture in the future.

“We’re afraid that this is just another way to make us go away,” Benjamin said.

The environmental leader said the state should allow the public to read and comment on the draft of the memorandums of understanding prior to their final approval.

That is the procedure Nevada follows with permits for air emissions, he said.

“So far as we can tell, the (memorandums of understanding) are unprecedented,” Benjamin said. “This kind of thing could be template for other states to follow.”

Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this report. Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0420.

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