Robert Gehrke: Utah should reinvent coal country, not gamble on propping it up

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Last week, an attorney for the bankrupt proponents of an Oakland coal port told a judge they were counting on a $20 million infusion from the Utah Legislature to keep the project from collapsing.

As my colleague Brian Maffly reported, the company behind the port, Insight Terminal Solutions, is hoping for salvation next week when the Utah Legislature meets in an emergency special session.

The $20 million lifeline would be the first payment from a $53 million account set up by the Legislature in 2016 to invest in the port with the dream of someday sending 11 million tons of coal each year to Japan and salvaging central Utah’s slumping coal industry.

The money dedicated to the port project came from Community Impact Funds, which is cash paid by the coal, oil and gas companies to mitigate the impacts of the extractive industries. The fund has traditionally been used for things like upgrading roads or sewer systems, erecting buildings or recreation facilities — efforts that benefit the community.

It was short-sighted and misguided to set aside some of the money for a coal port, and the same is even more true now that the project’s future is in peril.

That hasn’t stopped four coal-producing counties from vouching for the beleaguered project and committing to secure the funds — although in order to get the money in time, it will take action by the Legislature.

The governor’s office said Wednesday it hadn’t heard about adding a request for port funding to the special session agenda, nor had a member of Senate leadership who I spoke with.

Insight’s future, at this point, is anything but certain, with creditors chomping at the company’s heels. Committing $20 million to the floundering project in a special session without a clear understanding of the prospects for success and without adequate public input seems like a big gamble and a poor process.

But there are larger questions. For example, why are we subsidizing mining companies, generators or dirty electricity and end-users overseas who won’t have to pay the full price of their power, thanks to Utah’s generosity.

And why does Utah keep twisting itself into knots, even rewriting state law, to prop up a coal industry that has become a sliver of the state’s economy?

Since 2001, coal production has fallen by half. According to a report by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute, employment in Utah’s coal country has fallen by 16% since 2008. According to the most recent estimate, there are roughly 1,300 people working in the Utah coal industry — roughly the same as the number of butchers or skincare specialists.

I’m not suggesting those jobs aren’t important. They are, especially if you’re one of the people who rely on them to pay your bills. But we aren’t throwing tens of millions of public dollars propping up butchers or opening new markets for our skincare specialists overseas.

Over the next two decades, Pacificorp is investing heavily in new solar projects and shaving nearly 100 years off the operational lifespan of its seven coal power plants in Utah.

The demise of the industry is creating profound social problems in the region. Poverty is high. The population is shrinking as people move away, leaving one in five houses vacant, according to the U.‘s 2018 study, and home values dropping.

Opioid use in coal country is shockingly high — with death rates triple the national average and more opioid prescriptions written in Carbon County in 2016 than there are people.

These are the kinds of impacts the Community Impact Funds should be addressing.

Last year, a team at the University of Utah created the Coal Country Strike Team, a blueprint for how to revitalize central Utah’s coal economy, and finished second in the American Dream Ideas Challenge, a national competition for policy plans to bolster depressed parts of the country.

They have since handed the program off to local leaders, but already they have funded scholarships, tourism projects, teacher training for tech fields, and the counties have signed an agreement with Silicon Slopes to develop a Silicon Slopes East to spur tech business development in the area.

They’ve done it all with a modest budget. Imagine how much more they could do to benefit the long-term economy there if they had even a piece of the $53 million that the state wants to spend on the port.

It’s time for Utah to get out of the coal port pipe dream and to start spending these funds as they were intended, investing in programs that will impact the community and reinvent its future, not funding the futile fight to cling to its past.