Does a plan to merge Utah’s environment and natural resources agencies signal a waning commitment to clean air, water in Utah?

Bill sponsor says its about saving money, cutting red tape. Environmental activists are concerned.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) This Jan. 6, 2015, file photo shows the Salt Lake Valley and Oquirrh Mountains looking southwest from the Gateway mall as an inversion and smog begin building. The Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors air quality, along with water and waste management in the state, would be merged with the Department of Natural Resources under legislation being drafted in coordination with the new Spencer Cox administration.

Under a proposal expected to be unveiled in coming days for the upcoming legislative session, two major Utah state agencies would be merged, teaming environmental regulators with officials who oversee the development of the state’s natural resources.

The bill proposes folding the departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and Environmental Quality (DEQ) under one umbrella, possibly along with other state agencies currently housed in the governor’s office.

The goal of the bill is to promote government efficiency, according to the sponsoring lawmaker Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who believes the agencies’ overlapping missions result in bureaucratic redundancy. But critics are concerned its effect, intended or otherwise, would dilute and diminish the authority of officials charged with protecting Utah’s environment.

We’re tying to save a little bit of money on overhead [and] I’m trying to simplify processes. There’s a lot of things that DEQ does that DNR is also doing,” Snider said. “I don’t want to change any of the integrity of anything. DEQ will send out an inspector and then DOGM [DNR’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining] will send out an inspector, and they’re looking at the same thing, doing the same report. It doesn’t make sense.”

The bill is still a work in progress, being drafted with guidance from the freshly installed administration of Gov. Spencer Cox, according to Snider.

Recommendations to the administration from separate groups of transition team members did not mention a merger of DEQ and DNR. The DNR review suggested that coordination between it and DEQ and other agencies “could be improved.”

The DEQ review made no similar comment but did suggest the agency “can be more effective in balancing rural and urban perspectives.” It also said DEQ should “consider how the permit approval process could be streamlined.”

A former staffer to Utah’s retired Rep. Rob Bishop, Snider is known as a moderate Republican with a soft spot for conservation. The 30-something farmer joined the Legislature in 2018 as its youngest member.

Environmental activists are suspicious of the proposed move, calling it “a solution in search of problem” that could constrain environmental regulators’ independence.

Scott Williams, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, or HEAL, said he would oppose the bill.

“We think DEQ needs its own leadership. It needs to have Cabinet-level status,” Williams said. “I just don’t see that there’s enough savings here. Reorganizations are incredibly resource- and time consuming.”

Before DEQ was set up as an independent agency in 1993, environmental protection was handled by the state Department of Health.

“The issues were complex enough and becoming involved enough that it had gotten too big to have the Health Department run all of the public health and environmental issues,” said Williams. “DEQ started as an organization that was designed to focus on how environmental issues affect the health of the people of the state of Utah. It just seems like it’s really migrated a long way from its original charter.”

Williams and other critics are concerned the bill was drafted with insufficient input from stakeholders and agency staffers, who were largely in the dark about the proposal until this week. Williams said the issue of agency consolidation never came up in his recent hourlong interview with Cox’s transition team.

The proposed merger, which appears to have support from the incoming administration, is not a new idea. It was the subject of legislation a decade ago that flopped when it lacked backing from then Gov. Gary Herbert.

DEQ and DNR “may have some issues in common, but they have distinctly different missions and functions,” Herbert’s spokesperson at the time, Ally Isom, said.

“The governor is not persuaded those missions and functions can be melded in a mutually beneficial way.”

Neither of the department directors at the time supported the change, either, pointing out that auditor reviews in the 1980s and ‘90s revealed no significant cost savings or increased efficiencies. In fact the DNR director at the time, Mike Styler, said such a merger could entail “significant conflicts of interest.”

DEQ has a budget of about $81 million and has 350 full-time and 43 part-time employees. It houses five divisions: water quality; air quality; drinking water; environmental response; and waste management and radiation control.

Employing between 1,100 and 1,500 (because of the seasonal nature of some jobs), DNR has a budget of about $280 million. It houses seven divisions: wildlife, parks and recreation; water resources; water rights; geological survey; forestry, fire and state lands; and oil, gas and mining.

“I don’t want to take away any regulatory structure. It’s literally like, ‘You used to go over there, now you’re over here,” Snider said. “My goal is just combining forces. I’m not making any regulatory change.”

While Cox has kept DNR’s executive director Brian Steed in place, his DEQ counterpart Scott Baird departed last week after only a year on the job. Kim Shelley, a longtime DEQ staffer, now heads DEQ.

In an email to DEQ staff Thursday, Shelley assured them that the legislation in its current form would not alter the function or scope of their work.

“DEQ will remain autonomous with respect to our programs and authorities within the proposed newly formed agency structure, and we will stay in our current building,” she wrote. “Operations will continue uninterrupted with no reduction in workforce or significant impact to day-to-day responsibilities.”

Steed, who has worked with Snider to draft the bill, rejected the idea that Snider’s bill would promote resource development at the expense of the environment.

“The initiative here is to enhance the ability to engage with all our stakeholders and not diminish their role. It’s absolutely imperative the functionality of DEQ remains completely intact. They have such a vital role in the state. DNR also has a vital role, and there’s no reason they can’t continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing but in a more effective way.”

Cox has tasked agency heads to look for ways to better coordinate across agencies, according to Steed.

“The governor is asking us to look for some of these things that overlap,” he said. “If you look at DEQ and DNR, and what we do, we’re all dealing with [natural] resources. There is an opportunity to view those things more holistically. I’m not going to say that we’ve had a bad working relationship with DEQ. Like all things, I think, it could be improved.”

To illustrate these points, Steed noted DEQ and DNR both have two division each that deal with water.

“They talk together, but I think, being sister agencies, there is some benefit to work more effectively between those and view that resource holistically, because in truth, we’re not getting more water,” Steed said. “It’s all the same water.”

Among Western states, Nevada’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources houses agencies in a manner similar to what Snider’s bill envisions.

Also eyed for consolidation in Snider’s bill are the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, the Office of Energy Development and the Office of Outdoor Recreation. Untouched is the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, which manages 3 million acres of state-owned land for the benefit of public education.

SITLA was spun out of DNR in 1994 to ensure state trust lands were managed independently from political interference after a long history of lax oversight that shortchanged these lands’ beneficiaries. Returning oversight of trust lands to DNR would defeat the purpose of those reforms, which have paid huge dividends to Utah’s school trust fund, which now exceeds $2 billion.

Some believe environmental protection also deserves that kind of independence.