Utah lawmakers turn to PragerU video instead of public comment on climate change

Utah agency heads blast Biden’s plans to curb greenhouse emissions.

(Tribune file photo by Al Hartmann) Utah is a major producer of fossil energy, as evidenced by the coal-fired Huntington Power Plant, pictured here at the edge of a gas field in Emery County. State officials are pushing back against President Joe Biden’s policies aimed at lowering carbon emissions from the kinds of hydrocarbons produced in Utah.

The West’s forests are dying, its landscapes are burning and its rivers and reservoirs are shriveling up.

Utah just experienced its hottest summer on record, coming on the heels of its driest year on record. The negative impacts of climate change are everywhere and the evidence that it’s driven by human-caused emissions is irrefutable.

Yet some Utah lawmakers apparently are more worried about a Democratic president’s efforts to address the climate crisis than climate change’s potential to change life in Utah. That was the message of a one-sided presentation Wednesday before the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.

“What are the implications to Utah families, businesses and government of a federal mandate requiring or compelling a rapid transformation from our current independent and reliable energy and transportation infrastructure to an energy and power infrastructure solely or primarily based on wind, solar and battery storage?” asked Rep. Keven Stratton, the Orem Republican who orchestrated Wednesday’s presentation.

The implications are bad news for Utah, according to the panel of state agency heads Stratton assembled.

“I look at what happens down in Sevier and Emery county in my district,” said Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield. “If we didn’t have [the Hunter and Huntington] power plants and we didn’t have those coal mines, life would be pretty strange down there with the economic impacts. And we just need to use good common sense, which is not so common anymore.”

The centerpiece of Stratton’s presentation was a 5-minute video created by the right-wing media platform known as PragerU. The video featured Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute delivering a scathing critique of the renewable energy sources championed by President Joe Biden’s policies. Not only do wind and solar have no chance of meeting U.S. energy needs, Mills alleged, but they carry greater environmental impacts than oil, gas and coal.

Nowhere does Mills mention how burning these fossil fuels dumps tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or describe the vast non-climate impacts associated with mining, transporting, burning and disposing of coal. According to all credible science, the buildup of atmospheric carbon is altering global climate systems, leading to sea level rise, violent tropical storms in the eastern U.S. and drought and fire in the West.

Stratton acknowledged there are other points of view, but he declined to let any of them get aired Wednesday, much to the dismay of Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, whose request to speak was denied.

Frankel denounced Wednesday’s spectacle as evidence of “an immense leadership failure.”

“You are our legislative branch, the people’s house. Why aren’t you letting the people speak to you?” Frankel wrote in remarks he was prepared to give. “For this committee to waste its precious time on silly videos, which deny climate change instead of having substantive conversations about water conservation opportunities which surround our cities and our farms, is total madness.”

Immediately proceeding Stratton’s presentation, the committee heard a sobering report on the depleted state of Utah’s reservoirs as a result of extreme drought that has left soils so dry that they sop up most of the moisture before it can reach the streams.

Frankel has been deeply frustrated by the Legislature’s lack of progress on legislation supporting meaningful water conservation, such as water audits, eliminating property tax subsidies on water rates and metering “secondary” water, which many Utahns lavish on their landscaping.

“Canals are leaking water because they haven’t been lined with concrete since the 150 years when they were constructed,” Frankel intended to tell the committee. “Climate change is causing this drought and not only is the Utah Legislature failing to identify the problem causing this drought, it is actively denying it.”

Wednesday’s panelists, which included Division of Oil, Gas and Mining Director John Baza and public lands policy chief Redge Johnson, targeted the Biden administration’s “30 by 30” initiative which seeks to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands and water by 2030. While the administration has yet to specify what counts as “conserved” for the purpose of this policy, Johnson assumed it would be unfair to Utah, where two-thirds of the land is already under federal control.

“You could say the state of Utah has already met the conservation goal of 30 by 30. In fact, we’re more. About 70% of the state is at some point of conservation, whether that’s open space or public lands,” Johnson said.

He voiced concern that the White House is looking at monument and wilderness designations without considering how various environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, already ensure land and rivers are protected.

“We hope that they will recognize that and not put additional restrictions and conservation requirements on the lands that we already have,” Johnson said. “And if we put additional restrictions on that, that makes it more difficult for us to do good, active management.”

Matt Anderson, of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development, argued that to achieve Biden’s call for zero carbon emissions by 2050, the nation would need to increase its production of critical minerals, such as the lithium that goes into batteries, by a factor of six.

“If we’re going to have more green energy, it’s going to require more mining,” said Anderson. “And the concern that we have in the Office of Energy Development is that there’s restrictions put on the land that we won’t be able to provide those, we’ll get those resources from elsewhere, which will impact Utah jobs.”

Baza said that industry has gotten better at extracting conventional energy resources—coal, oil and gas—from harder to reach places and with fewer impacts.

“Where I stand as a regulator is ensuring that those adverse impacts don’t occur when development happens in this state,” he said. “But for heaven’s sake, we shouldn’t be creating artificial limits on how much of it we can get out of the ground. Let’s let the private sector and the free market determine how best to get it out of the ground so that it’s both affordable and abundant.”