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Governor's energy summit highlights stark divide

Published January 11, 2013 10:42 am

Summit • Protesters rally outside while Herbert says Utah is open for development.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's abundant coal and petroleum can be mined, processed, and shipped to market without harming the land and fouling the air and water, Gov. Gary Herbert told some 1,400 gathered Thursday at his annual Energy Development Summit.

"Utah is open for business in energy development. We aren't playing favorites. We want all our resources made available," said the governor at the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center. Herbert rejected the claim that extraction can only occur at a steep environmental cost.

"With innovation and creativity we can have it all. We are committed to protecting the environment," he said.

That message was in stark contrast with views expressed outside the building, where about 150 protesters argued Utah's political leaders are selling the state's world-class landscape to extractive industries looking to exploit fossil fuels.

The crowd of protesters gathered outside the Salt Palace at midday to protest the summit's focus on fossil fuel-based energy, including tar sands, oil shale and nuclear power. They also promoted renewable alternatives that would mean less impact on the air quality, water resources, public health and climate change, which scientists say is already taking a toll on the snowpack.

"It's not just the ski community at stake here — it's everyone who's thirsty and counts on the snowpack to melt gradually into the spring into the summer to provide a steady supply of water," said pro skier Caroline Gleich, carrying her skis and a "Coal Kills Snow" placard to the speakers' podium. "If we continue on our current trajectory, droughts will be come more frequent as snowfall becomes more unpredictable."

"We've spent enough time living in the past — coal and fossil fuel has had it's time and its place," said pro snowboarder, Forrest Shearer, standing by her side. "We love Utah, and we want to see Utah move forward. It's time to invest in clean energy now."

Underlying the two views that clashed Thursday at the summit are two opposing resource bases that support Utah's economic prospects — vast deposits of hydrocarbons and a natural landscape of unparalleled beauty.

One creates high-paying industry jobs, helps meets the nation's energy needs, and expands local tax bases. The other attracts high-spending tourists, outdoor enthusiasts and creative people key to building a knowledge-based economy.

During Thursday's protest, with the sky darkening and a bitter chill blowing in a snowstorm, the group at times chanted to warm up.

"Dirty Gary, make our day, get real on climate right away," they shouted. "Dirty Gary, wind and solar are here to stay."

After the rally ended, they took the chant inside to the doors of the room where the summit luncheon was under way. They sang "This Land is Your Land" and called on Herbert to speak with them.

Herbert's energy adviser Cody Stewart noted the summit gave ample play to renewables, reflecting Herbert's "all-of-the-above" approach to energy. But the nation still depends on fossil fuels, which exist in vast quantities here.

"They've got to be realistic," Stewart said. "Some of the things they are protesting aren't in our control. We can't control that Utah has great coal and oil deposits and wind is not so good here."

Meanwhile, Utah's congressional delegation argued federal bureaucrats unnecessarily impede Utah's ability to develop energy sources within its borders.

Federally mandated environmental reviews are holding up energy projects in Western states, costing the economy $15 billion a year and 65,000 jobs, said Sen. Mike Lee during a panel that included three Republican colleagues.

This group, which included Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart, called for reforming NEPA, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act that sets up a sometimes arduous decision-making process for determining environmental impacts of projects occurring on federal lands. Stewart singled out the Endangered Species Act as another environmental law in need of reform because of its far-reaching impacts.

Lee insisted regulatory powers be relegated to the states wherever practical and blasted what he called environmentalists' "frivolous lawsuits" aimed at undermining energy development.

"We have sue-and-settle tactics that creates law by judicial consent decree," he said. "We are not looking at a binary set of options. I don't know any drillers who want to make a species go extinct. The question is how do we develop energy resources in a way that best preserves both these interests."

Despite these problems, political leaders conceded energy production in Utah is at a 24-year high and growing, driven largely by new technologies that can tap oil and gas in previously unreachable places. The state issued 2,103 drilling permits last year, setting a new record.

"I'm very optimistic about the future when it comes to energy production," the governor said. "Energy is one of the reasons we are a great destination for business. It has been a great boon, particularly for rural parts of the state."

Herbert asked his critics to join the discussion with "open minds and unbiased attitudes."

"The public wants an energy supply that's sustainable, affordable and cleaner. The good news it's happening. Market forces are responding to what the public wants," Herbert said.

The summit continues Friday at the Salt Palace.

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Twitter: @judyfutah