WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has found a refuge in the nation's preoccupation with record energy prices.
While the push by President Bush and congressional Republicans for more oil drilling is resonating with voters, the Nevada Democrat is focused on solar and other renewable energy sources, which happen to be more abundant in his home state than almost anywhere else in the country.
At some political risk for a gold miner's son, Reid also is leading the opposition to new coal-burning power plants planned for Nevada, where unions and the energy-hungry casino industry wield far more political clout than environmentalists. He faces re-election in 2010 in a state up for grabs by both parties.
Reid briefly had the most-watched video on YouTube several weeks ago, after the Drudge Report linked to a TV clip of him declaring that "coal makes us sick ... it's ruining our world."
A conservative advocacy group, the American Future Fund, used the comments in radio ads in Nevada and Washington, D.C., this past week that claimed, "Reid says 'yes' to higher energy taxes."
But Reid sees potential for jobs and economic benefits if he can advance his goal of transforming Nevada into "the Saudi Arabia of geothermal and solar energy."
"Nevada doesn't have a whole lot of oil or coal or gas. But it has a whole lot of sun and thermal," said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association. "Senator Reid is an old-fashioned politician — he watches his constituency. He understands, with geothermal, how big the potential is for the state."
Nevadans now get about 9 percent of their energy from renewable sources, a number that under state law must rise to 20 percent by 2015.
Many energy experts say the potential is far greater. Despite its relatively small size, Nevada leads the nation in solar and geothermal resources, according to trade groups and government statistics, and has potential for wind-energy development. Its fossil fuel stockpiles, by contrast, are negligible.
More renewable energy projects are coming online rapidly. As of early this year, Nevada had 40 geothermal projects in development to squeeze energy from hot water and steam drilled from the earth — more than any other state. Agreement is near on a 100-megawatt solar-thermal project to be built by Johnson Controls near Mercury, just inside the Nevada Test Site's southern boundary, according to Reid's office.
And late last month, Reid officiated at the formal opening of a solar parts-manufacturing plant that he lured to Las Vegas.
Reid contends that growth of the renewable-energy industry could provide a bonanza of new jobs for Nevada and reduce dependence on fossil fuel, much of it imported from out-of-state.
"It's too bad that it takes an energy crisis like we're having to cause a focus on renewables. It's a situation where we have these gas prices that are sky high, and it is an opportunity," Reid said in an interview. "Renewables are good for the economy, create lots of jobs and are very good for the environment. That's a pretty good combination of things."
In recent weeks, Reid might have preferred a little less focus on renewables, a still-infant industry, which depends in part on $6 billion in tax credits that have stalled in Congress because of a dispute between Democrats and Republicans led by Nevada's other senator, John Ensign, R-Nev.
Reid pulled a major housing bill from the Senate floor last month after Ensign attached the renewable-energy tax package to it, leading Ensign to complain — without naming Reid —that Democratic leaders weren't committed to renewable energy.
Reid said there was no point in passing the bill, because it would fail in the House, where Democrats are insisting that it be paid for with tax increases that Ensign and other Senate conservatives reject. Both senators insist they support the energy tax credits, but the fate of the package is uncertain.
While maintaining their long-standing agreement not to criticize each other in public, the senators also have split ways on the issue of building more coal plants in Nevada, which Ensign supports and Reid opposes.
Though the government projects that coal use will grow to meet rising energy demands in Nevada and around the country, Reid is fighting the state's leading utility, Sierra Pacific Resources, over its plan to build a new coal plant in eastern Nevada. Two outside companies also are pushing coal plants in the state.
Last year, Reid tried to block Sierra Pacific's plans by slipping language into a must-pass spending bill that would have changed the air-quality designation at Great Basin National Park to essentially preclude any coal plants nearby. That gambit failed, and now Reid is pushing legislation that would help finance transmission lines meant to carry electricity produced mostly by renewable energy, potentially excluding coal.
Already, Sierra Pacific pushed back the timeline for its planned $5 billion coal plant at Ely.
Coal, Reid says, is "filthy, it's dirty stuff." The best way for the renewable-energy industry to grow in Nevada is for coal plants to stay out, he contends.
It's a point coal advocates dispute. "You're not going to be able to provide enough power in the short term with renewables," said Frank Maisano, spokesman for Toquop Energy Project, one of the coal plants trying to come into Nevada. "Las Vegas, Arizona, places like that — they need more power now."
But Reid's sticking with renewables. Next month, he's convening a National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas with oilman-turned-renewable energy advocate T. Boone Pickens as a featured speaker. Reid will preview the event Wednesday on a media conference call with another invitee, former President Bill Clinton.
Reid also talks every few days with former Vice President Al Gore, a clean-energy advocate who called last week for producing electricity from all-renewable sources within 10 years.
One low-pollution energy source Reid almost never mentions is nuclear, a sore subject in Nevada, the government's designated dumping ground for 77 million tons of radioactive wastes from the rest of the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors. Reid and the state's other political leaders have worked for years to block construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.