If there's any public lands agency that's unabashedly pro-energy development, it would have to be the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. Maximizing profits for the benefit of schools is, after all, in its legal job description.
So it was with no illusions of quick change Thursday that Ryan Pleune appeared before SITLA's board for the third and final time this year seeking an about-face on leasing oil shale and tar sands deposits to would-be energy developers.
Until the world accepts the preponderance of climate science and alters its economy to phase out fossil fuels, Pleune said after addressing the board, SITLA likely won't take up his proposals to stop leasing to companies and start awarding non-competitive bids to conservation groups instead.
"This is a fantasy," Pleune said. "I recognize that. But it's one that I'm willing to work on."
More realistic, he believes, is his final request: that SITLA bump its royalties to around 16 percent to bring them in line with what it charges for oil and gas. The agency's price for unconventional fuels none of which have yet been produced commercially in the state except as asphalt range from 5 percent to 12.5 percent depending on volume.
Pleune told board members he believes their legal mandate to benefit school children could be read as beyond cash to environmental protection. He provided them with statistics he said showed the known reserves of conventional fuels would, if burned, make the planet essentially unlivable even without digging up shale and tar sands. Afterward, he said he feels compelled to make the case even if he doesn't immediately sway trustees.
"I have to say it," he said, "because I would love to have kids, and right now I don't feel like bringing kids into this world makes sense."
Pleune is involved with Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising, both climate-conscious groups that have previously protested SITLA's oil shale and tar sands leasing program. The agency granted detractors three 10-minute slots to make their case, which they used at the May, June and August board meetings.
After Thursday's presentation, the board asked no questions but Chairman Dan Lofgren said, "I, for one, have a keen sense of your sincerity about this and admire your commitment."
Lofgren later said that he believes SITLA's responsibility is to the schools' finances.
"We understand his concern," Lofgren said. "I don't personally believe we have as much latitude as he thinks we do. But you know what? We'll have some more discussions."
SITLA already has leased much of its deposits of the commercially unproven fuels 93,000 acres for oil shale and 53,000 acres for tar sands. Altering the royalties could happen only when leases expire or are renewed, generally every 10 years. John Andrews, SITLA associate director and chief legal counsel, said royalties are a legitimate issue for debate, though the U.S. Interior Department's decision a few years ago to mirror Utah's rates seems like validation.
Even at the low start-up rate of 5 percent, he said, a company like Red Leaf would contribute to state schools tens of thousands of dollars a day if it can produce 9,000 barrels a day as it claims.
What about suspending leasing or awarding lands to conservation groups without competition from energy companies?
"Obviously," Andrews said, "we aren't going to be agreeing with those."