Legislators on Tuesday aired a proposal to establish an "environmental protection defense fund" that would finance efforts to gather data and oppose future federal decisions that could severely limit energy development in Utah.
The state is not ready to defend its interests should federal agencies decide greater sage grouse and other species, as well as the Uinta Basin airshed, warrant protection, energy industry lobbyist Jeff Hartley told the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee.
"You need to find a pot of money and start building it up because you are going to need it," Hartley said. "There are over 100 potential endangered-species listings. All will negatively impact energy production."
Conservationists have long argued that grazing, off-road motorized recreation and energy development are erasing habitat for the West's iconic bird species, which they say deserves federal protection. The sage grouse's historical range includes the Uinta Basin oil patch, and listing the bird would be expected to impede drilling there and in other parts of Utah.
Federal officials plan to determine by the end of 2015 whether sage grouse warrant federal protection.
Hartley highlighted a rare species of beardtongue, also called penstemon, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says grows only on oil shale outcrops in eastern Utah's Uintah County. Listing the plant as an endangered species, as the agency proposes, could shut down oil-shale development, according to Hartley.
His clients include Red Leaf Resources, which hopes to soon secure approval to mine and process Utah shale.
"Unless we are equipped with good data and unless we have smart attorneys who know how to beat EPA on air-quality issues and how to beat Fish and Wildlife on endangered-species issues, this state will be inadequately prepared to go into those fights and you will lose," Hartley said.
"When you lose," he added, "you lose hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue that will be locked up because you can't access the land for production."
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said he is drafting legislation to appropriate money necessary to support such a fund.
This wouldn't be the first time lawmakers invested taxpayer dollars in campaigns to fight federal actions that limit local control of public land in Utah. The Constitutional Defense Council, for example, was set up to prevent wilderness designations. It now helps counties litigate road claims against the federal government.