Cox’s energy plan is lacking, Robert Gehrke explains, but could be a starting point if Utah wants to get serious about climate

Utah has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start responding to climate change, and that time is now.

(Laura Seitz | Pool) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during the PBS Utah governor's monthly news conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Last month, the normally “aw shucks” Gov. Spencer Cox got about as riled up as you’ll ever see him.

His ire was sparked when he was asked if, on the day he declared yet another statewide drought emergency, he saw a contradiction in also calling for more oil and gas drilling to alleviate inflationary pressures.

“People dying of hunger right now because they can’t afford a loaf of bread at the store is much more important to me and our national security is much more important in the short term,” the agitated governor said. “I’m so tired of these false choices we’re being presented with.”

Suggesting we have to choose between starvation or fossil fuel extraction strikes me as one of those false choices. But the governor’s larger point was that government regulation can’t slow the changing climate.

“If we did everything that has ever been proposed by every environmentalist in the state right now, it would have zero impact on global emissions,” Cox said, noting that emissions in China and India would triple any reductions.

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

Given his pique, it probably comes as no surprise that Cox released his new “State Energy and Innovation Plan” Tuesday, it wasn’t really focused on the state leading out to avert a climate catastrophe.

The word “climate” appears three times, twice embracing “market-driven climate solutions” and once referencing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report’s mention of carbon capture and sequestration, a technology yet to be broadly implemented.

To be fair, it does tout a nearly 46% per capita reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 2002 and 2017 and notes that Utah is on track to reach the Legislature’s goal of generating 20% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025. It suggests setting a new goal but doesn’t plant any flags on where it should be.

In fact, it makes very few specific recommendations. It’s more of a conceptual statement of values than a plan committing to an “any of the above” energy future, fostering U.S. energy independence, supporting Coal Country economies, and investing in emerging technology and innovative infrastructure.

None of that tells us how we’re going to get where we need to be energy-wise or what the state’s role will be in getting there and “any of the above” isn’t a plan so much as it is throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

A real plan would: look at Utah’s anticipated growth; the demand that growth will place on our energy resources; layout a menu of options for how to meet those needs including the trade-offs for each variation on the recipe. Then it would put forward a preferred course of action and specific policy recommendations on how the governor would prefer to move forward.

It does none of that.

At the same time, Cox characterized this as a living document that will evolve over time and hopefully we’ll see some flesh added to these bare-bones going forward.

“I feel like the governor and his team laid out a really clear framework of where we are right now with respect to Utah’s energy sources,” Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy, told me. “It’s a starting point and the next step is to operationalize it and to create programs and goals to drive things like how many homes do we want to retrofit? How many electric vehicles we want on the road? And how do we get there?”

As those actual policy proposals take shape, it is imperative that the impact on climate be more than an afterthought. It has to be front-and-center of a real, concrete plan.

The report opens by stating that “Affordability, reliability, and sustainability are Utah’s priorities for all its energy-related work.” A recent report from the Citizens Utility Board ranked Utah 1st in affordability, 15th in reliability, but in the bottom third of states when it comes to environmental factors that make our grid sustainable.

We can do better without sacrificing affordability and reliability.

Rather than just updating a renewable target, Utah should follow the lead of other states and shift its focus to slashing greenhouse gas emissions, which would require a holistic approach to the problem — like, reducing pollutants from car tail-pipes, industrial emitters polluters, buildings and, yes, clean, renewable energy generation.

Before the last legislative session, I wrote about an idea floated by state Sen. Kirk Cullimore to cut harmful emissions in half by 2030 through a combination of tactics — higher registration fees for gas-guzzling cars and a sort of cash-for-clunkers program to get them off the road; improved building standards; and a simplified cap-and-trade policy for industrial polluters.

The bill was never drafted but could provide a framework for new emissions goals.

Utah Clean Energy sent Cox recommendations that included making energy efficiency a top priority, investing in retrofitting homes and buildings, supporting electrification of appliances and heating in homes, accelerating the strategic expansion of electric vehicle charging stations, a beefed-up renewable standard and research in battery storage for wind and solar energy.

In the coming months and years Utah will be getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal infrastructure bill providing us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go big — real big — on a clean energy future.

We need strong leadership at the top, and a recognition of the dangers posed by a changing climate. Without that vision, we risk seeing our lakes and reservoirs continue to disappear, wildfires and dust storms raging and our agriculture and ski tourism industries jeopardized.

It should be a clear choice — not a false one.