Gehrke: Trump can try to prop up the coal industry, but rural Utah needs to start preparing for the future

For eight years, Andrew Wheeler was the main lobbyist for coal baron Robert Murray, the largest owner of coal mines in the United States and co-owner of the Crandall Canyon mine in Huntington that collapsed in 2007, killing six miners and three rescuers.

Now, because somewhere along the way we slipped into Bizarro-America, Wheeler heads the agency responsible for protecting the environment.

Last week Wheeler, flanked by a group of coal miners, announced he was wiping out an Obama-era rule — never actually implemented — requiring states to reduce fossil fuel emissions and stave off climate change.

Instead, the Trump administration tried to throw a lifeline to the dwindling coal industry, letting coal-fired power plants stay open longer — continuing to pollute — if states take steps to increase plant efficiency.

Even former Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who now heads the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, praised the rule as providing “a more flexible path forward that will minimize the cost to consumers and preserve the reliability of the electric grid.”

It comes with a cost: The Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists warned it would result in the deaths of as many as 1,500 people a year by 2030 because of additional air pollution compared to the Obama plan.

And what will it do for Utah’s Coal Country? Not much.

The most recent report from the Utah Geological Survey noted a small uptick in production in the state and forecast a somewhat larger increase, thanks solely to exports to foreign markets. The coal output is half what it was in 2007 and the Utah energy produced by coal fell by 12% between 2007 and 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

That’s because the advances in other forms of energy — natural gas and renewables — are making it economically impractical to continue running coal plants and we don’t have to look far to see that reality in action.

For two days last week, Pacificorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, held public meetings to discuss its future energy portfolio, including accelerating the closure of Wyoming coal plants. One unit was shut down earlier this year and three more are now slated to be taken offline by 2023.

Pacificorp anticipates taking 1,000 megawatts of coal power offline by 2025 and 2,000 within the decade and no plans to build new coal plants.

When the utility closes its two coal plants in Utah — Huntington and Hunter — in 2036, there will be no more coal power in Pacificorp’s six-state grid.

And the Intermountain Power Project, which last year pumped 3.7 million tons of coal into in two coal plants in Millard County and sells power to California will replace those units with natural gas plants in 2025. The new Trump rule won’t change that plan.

“Our main customers are in Southern California,” said IPP spokesman John Ward, “and they’re not going to change their plans based on this.”

This transformation is not because of policy in Washington. It is being driven by market forces. Those market forces won’t change and, if anything, are likely to accelerate in the coming years.

“The biggest enemy to coal right now and the biggest friend of renewables is the marketplace because renewables have got so cheap,” said Michael Shea, a policy analyst with the environmental group HEAL Utah. “Trump can huff and puff as much as he wants, but regulation in either direction can only do so much. In the end the market will determine the future. So the writing is on the wall.”

There will be Utahns hurt by this transformation — namely the roughly 1,300 people who work in Utah’s coal mines. And there will be efforts by Utah policymakers to try to prop up coal, including the notion of spending Utah money to ship coal, either through Oakland or Mexico, to Asia.

A better course, however, is to use this narrowing window to prepare for the future.

Michael Kourianos is the mayor of Price. He is also a foreman at the Huntington power plant. And he is co-chairing a coal “strike team” created by the Legislature to work toward diversifying the economies of Emery and Carbon counties.

The slow death of coal has had a startling impact on those counties. Where employment statewide increased by 17 percent between 2008 and 2017, it has declined by 16 percent in Carbon and Emery. Unemployment is above the state rate and home values are depreciating.

The coal strike team is meant to bring together experts from different arenas to develop policy to reinvent the region’s economy, leveraging its proximity (just 90 minutes from the Silicon Slopes tech corridor), its Utah State University satellite campus, and its near-universal broadband.

“This is about our future, keeping our children and grandchildren in our community,” Kourianos has said.

The strike team was one of 152 ideas for how to bolster the middle class vying for a $1 million prize from Schmidt Futures, a project backed by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy. Now it’s one of five finalists. This week, Kourianos and Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, will be in New York to pitch their concept.

“We don’t really go into some of the things about prolonging the life of the power plants or the mines,” Gochnour said. “For us it’s really in the long term interest of these communities to diversify.”

Maybe they’ll win the prize, maybe not. Either way, it’s the right approach for the state to be taking, focusing our energy on preparing for a future in coal country without coal power, instead of futilely fighting to prolong the inevitable.