Utah’s Republican hopefuls for governor are overwhelmingly supportive of the Utah inland port — a large and controversial distribution hub development that some Salt Lake County residents worry will be a polluting nightmare but that the candidates forecast will be an economic boon.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox says the project is “critical” to the Beehive State’s continued economic successes, “both along the Wasatch Front and in rural Utah.”
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman calls the international trading center a “down payment on our future” and says improving the state’s connections to the world market is “essential for our future ability to compete and for our long-term prosperity.”
The port is also a major component of his plan to double the size of the state’s gross domestic product from $180 billion to upwards of $500 billion over the next 10 years and to establish Utah as the “crossroads of the world.”
And former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who was one of the architects of the project when he was in the Legislature, describes the port as Utah’s “most significant infrastructure and economic development project” since the transcontinental railroad was completed 150 years ago.
But amid concerns from port opponents about the project’s possible environmental harms — and lofty promises from candidates to improve the state’s air quality — each of the gubernatorial hopefuls say they would work to ensure the development is sensitive to the surrounding area.
[Election 2020: Where Utah’s gubernatorial candidates stand on a variety of issues]
“I think we need to do our best to balance all the factors,” said former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright. “That portion of land is nearby wetlands and those wetlands have an ecosystem and that ecosystem is important to preserve. I’m a believer it’s not one or the other but you can do it all. We need to balance the economic impacts with the other impacts the inland port will have.”
Other candidates frame the need for environmental sustainability less as a moral imperative and more as a shrewd business strategy for the state.
Cox said in a recent Salt Lake Tribune survey of gubernatorial candidates that “an environmentally friendly inland port isn’t just the right thing to do” but is also necessary “to attract capital investment in the modern economy.” For that reason, he promised if elected as governor “to ensure Utah’s inland port is the most environmentally friendly port in the country.”
Hughes, who did not explicitly address the environment in his survey response, said in an interview that he supports the objective of creating an inland port that’s “based on best practices” and doesn’t worsen the state’s already poor air quality.
But “I think that it’s bearing out already,” he said. “If you look at best practices of ports that are new — not the older ones, but the newer ports around — they are sensitive to that. Reducing emissions, [using] autonomous vehicles, those things are happening. I do know more rail means less truck and I think that’s a positive for air quality.”
Huntsman and Wright are also espousing rail transport as an important component of the vision for environmental sustainability.
“By bringing goods in by rail, instead of roads, we can improve our air quality, reduce congestion on our roads and enhance our overall quality of life,” Wright said in a survey response. “We will be able to continue to attract investment into our area by companies that place increasing priority on efficient, modern distribution facilities.”
Research suggests that moving goods by rail is much more energy efficient than by truck. And the Energy Transition Commission, a coalition of global leaders working to accelerate a move toward low-carbon energy systems, estimates that a widespread shift to such modes of transportation could deliver up to a 20% reduction in global C02 emissions.
But the reality of rail shipping is much more complex. While rail companies estimated that they emitted only about 0.6 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas pollution in 2018, The Atlantic has reported that coal makes up almost one of every three tons of American rail freight.
“If you take emissions embedded into coal into account, the railroads facilitated 16.5 percent of total U.S. carbon pollution last year, according to calculations by Rob Jackson, a geoscience professor at Stanford,” The Atlantic reported last year.
Port authority Executive Director Jack Hedge has said transfer of oil and coal “makes no sense” to do in Salt Lake City but could be in the picture within the satellite “hubs” that will be based in rural communities as a way to make it easier for their exports to clear international customs.
A ‘really big deal for the entire state’
In interviews, Utah’s Republican candidates for governor have expressed particular interest in the satellite port concept the Utah Legislature created last year, in which the Salt Lake City site would serve as a logistics “hub” and other interested communities across the state would make up the spokes.
Cox sees that model as “good for rural Utah, creating jobs out there” and says it would at the same time give a boost to the environment by moving traffic away from the Wasatch Front “so that we’re doing more to clean the air.”
The port project as a whole, he says, has the potential to bridge some of the state’s “most rural economies” — many of which haven’t seen the same success as areas around the Wasatch Front — “to major ports in Seattle, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.”
Rural leaders from across the state have expressed support for the satellite port concept, which they see as a way to diversify their economies and create jobs.
If elected as governor, Huntsman said he would work “with local county and municipal leaders to address concerns and maximize benefits to their communities” from the port in areas like Tooele, Davis, Weber, and Iron counties.
“I see an inland port that would have reach in Tooele. Weber-Davis Counties, because you’ve already got so many workers who leave the region every day for work in Salt Lake and Utah counties,” he said. “We need to bring jobs closer to them.”
Tooele County and Iron County are both working on inland port satellite proposals, though the details remain fuzzy.
In addressing opposition to the project in the Salt Lake City area, several candidates have expressed a commitment to work with local leaders to address concerns and build trust.
Democratic candidate Chris Peterson said in The Tribune’s survey that he thinks the inland port should be directed by Salt Lake City. And while his Republican counterparts aren’t willing to go that far, they did express a need for a closer collaboration with the capital city than there has been in years past.
“It’s a project that needs the leadership of the state, but I do think it should be a joint project, which is what it is turning into as we have been able to make some of those changes and add representation from the city,” Cox said in an interview.
“This is a really big deal for the entire state,” he added. “It impacts so many people off the Wasatch Front as well as other communities along the Wasatch Front and so I think there is a role for the state to play but that doesn’t diminish the role of the city. I think it’s a joint role and that’s what we’ve gotten to.”
Huntsman also noted that there has to be a role for Salt Lake City in order for the port project to be successful.
“I don’t know that there is an ability to get this done successfully without the state and without the city collaborating,” he said. “I think they have to be collaborative partners. How far that goes [for changes] on a board, I don’t yet know.”
Wright said he’s supportive of local control and believes the best decisions are made by municipalities and said he wants to work to ensure the city has input in decision-making and that “their voices are being respected.”
Hughes, on the other hand, struck a different tone. He said if Salt Lake County residents are ultimately unsupportive of the project, he might push for a reduction in the project’s footprint in the capital city and would instead lean into satellite ports to ensure the economic benefit goes to those that most want it.
“I’ll be focused on the areas where there’s buy-in,” he said. “I think the people that are concerned in Salt Lake City, they can be happy to hear that, that we’re not looking to do it against their will. If they don’t ultimately want it at all, there’s many communities that would support it and we would go where the community buy-in is.”
After fighting for the port project in the Legislature, Hughes had originally appointed himself to serve on the board of the inland port. He resigned from the position shortly afterward amid controversy over property holdings so close to the planned shipping-and-receiving hub that they disqualified him from membership.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton and the House sponsor of the bill creating the port, replaced him on the board.
Amid promises from the candidates to engage the community and work with the Inland Port Authority Board toward sustainable development, Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, remained unconvinced.
She said she’ll need to see a lot more specifics from candidates about how they would mitigate the impacts of the port before she puts much stock in words she currently sees as “window dressing.”
“These candidates are speaking about this in broad generalities, cherry-picking aspects of it to suit their narrative, which is ‘This is going to be some kind of economic boon’ but really it’s a boondoggle,” she said.
“What really matters is what they’re willing to do to assure that certain things happen,” Seed argued. “If they’re willing to come to the table and lay down specifics that are legally enforceable for how this isn’t going to harm our environment and impair our air quality, sure. That would be awesome. But I don’t see anybody doing that.”
Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.