A fuel reserve fit for a doomsday scenario? Utah lawmakers are exploring it.

Salt formation near Delta has legislators dreaming of an energy stash.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Employees of Sawtooth Caverns walk in front of transmission towers on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, in Delta. Sawtooth operates underground fuel-storage caverns at the site, and Utah legislators are considering a state fuel reserve in the area.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Could every Utahn have a little fuel tucked away in the desert?

A Utah legislative committee gave its blessing to spend federal grant money to study the possibility of mass fuel storage to help keep the state functioning in the event of a major disruption.

Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, sponsor of HB317, said he wants the study to be “a more holistic look at what we need for energy reserves.”

“We are specifically focusing on fuel sources that can be converted immediately to energy,” said Dusty Monks, deputy director of the Utah Office of Energy Development.

In terms of widely used fuels, that could include gasoline, diesel fuel and natural gas. Other options could include propane, butane and hydrogen. It’s unknown how much of a fuel cushion is practical, given the huge amounts of fuel Utahns currently consume.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Utahns used 58 million barrels of petroleum (which translates to more than a billion gallons of gasoline) and 275 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2021.

The massive salt dome beneath Millard County likely would be front and center in a state fuel reserve.

“Of course, you know we are blessed in our state with a peculiar geologic anomaly,” said Musselman.

The dome already has a handful of underground caverns that have been “solution mined,” meaning water is pumped into the salt to dissolve enough to create the caverns. The caverns, which are a half-mile beneath the surface, sit below both private and state trust lands, and there is potential for dozens more to be created.

A private company, Sawtooth Caverns, has been storing petroleum products in the caverns for years.

Two recently mined caverns are expected to be filled with “green” hydrogen to be burned in the new IPP Renewed power plant that sits above the salt. Plans call for the caverns to hold “seasonal” amounts of hydrogen, meaning enough to keep the 860-megawatt power plant running for months.

Each of the two caverns is expected to hold 150 gigawatt-hours of hydrogen energy. By comparison, Utah consumes about 30 terawatt-hours a year, or about 200 times what one of the caverns holds.

While there is fuel stored in tanks in almost every state, most of the fuel storage in underground salt formations happens in the Gulf Coast area, which is also home to the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a national stockpile of unrefined crude oil.

In many instances, fuel storage is a price-hedging strategy, allowing companies to buy more when prices are low or sell more when prices are high.

But Musselman said he is thinking of emergency preparedness, noting that the state’s five refineries are clustered in an earthquake zone. He also acknowledged that disasters can shut down pipelines, cutting off access to a fuel reserve.

Legislators were enthusiastic about the idea of a fuel safety net, and Rep. Thomas Peterson, R-Brigham City, also liked that it could lead to more state sovereignty, a favorite topic on Capitol Hill.

But the notion of state sovereignty didn’t stop legislators from embracing a plan to pay for the study with federal grant money intended for energy resiliency. The Office of Energy Development plans to use an estimated $250,000 to hire a consultant to report back on possibilities.