Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., center, meets with people after speaking at the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce in Reno on Aug. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Samuel Metz.)
RENO — U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto told a group of battery manufacturers, conservationists and developers on Monday that the infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this month will boost efforts to grow the renewable energy sector in Nevada and throughout the country.
Speaking at the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Cortez Masto said infrastructure investments, tax credits for renewable energy projects and incentives to site solar and wind projects on former mines would create jobs and protect the environment for future generations.
Questions about infrastructure investment and renewable energy projects also laid bare divisions among Democrats regarding environmental policy. Cortez Masto attempted to find middle ground as she heard from solar and wind developers frustrated by the project permitting process on federal lands and conservationists worried about the effect that projects like solar farms or lithium mines will have on the ecosystems they're built around.
"Making these investments in these critical minerals that are necessary for the technology that's going to bring us the clean (energy) economy is important. We can actually look at mining in a responsible way — still protect the environment, still protect the outdoors — as we look at extracting these minerals. It can be done," she said.
Nevada has an abundance of resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The state has some of the world's largest deposits of lithium, which is a key component in the batteries that power electric vehicles. Its deserts are prime environments for wind and solar developments.
But many progressives have opposed lithium mining at places like Thacker Pass and Rhyolite Ridge due to its potential effect on native species. And some communities are opposed to renewable energy development in their backyards, including in the Moapa Valley where developers abandoned plans to build what would have been the United States' largest array of solar panels last month.
"It's incredibly important to us that green energy build-out does not sacrifice the ecosystems that we are trying to protect in the long term," Mauricia Baca, the Nevada director of the Nature Conservancy, told Cortez Masto.
American Battery Technology CEO Doug Cole said the United States was quickly losing its competitive advantage to countries like China because people don't want mines in their backyards, "just like solar and everything else."
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, known as one of Congress's most centrist Democrats, was originally scheduled to join Cortez Masto, who is up for reelection next year. But Manchin, who chairs the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources committee, had travel difficulties due to the wildfire smoke blanketing Northern Nevada.
Cortez Masto said the mining industries was a critical part of both Nevada and West Virginia's economies, although the hard rock minerals extracted in Nevada differ from the coal mined in West Virginia. She said she had looked forward to taking Manchin — who, in 2013, criticized then-President Barack Obama for waging a "war on coal" — across rural Nevada to explain the connection between mining for critical minerals like lithium and protecting the environment.
The two senators were scheduled to tour a gold mine near Elko on Tuesday.
Cortez Masto noted how the infrastructure bill would benefit national security by leveling the playing field with China, which produces much of the world's critical minerals.
"This innovation economy is bringing that critical supply chain back in the United States — American jobs. Because we are competing with China and competing with other countries that really are not a benefit to us economically. So we want to have a competitive advantage," she said.
Republican Adam Laxalt, who is challenging Cortez Masto in next year's election and received an endorsement from former President Donald Trump on Friday, said he opposed the infrastructure bill because of its price tag and scope beyond traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges. Cortez Masto noted Republican support for the bill and said Laxalt's position wouldn't help bolster Nevada's economy
"If you're against this bipartisan infrastructure package, then you're against new jobs for Nevada and economic growth in Nevada," she said.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.