Fact check: Lawmakers are right. Utah isn’t energy independent. They may be wrong that it should be.

State’s legislative leaders want more control over energy, but they are up against market power, which helps keep prices low.

In his opening day speech to fellow legislators this week, Senate President Stuart Adams sounded the alarm.

“For the first time ever, and this is really concerning, last year Utah used more power than we produced,” the Layton Republican said. “We must become energy independent once again.”

Adams’ angst largely comes from the fact that Utah’s coal production has plunged in recent years, and electrical utilities are relying on it less and less. Adams’ counterpart in the Utah House, Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, delivered a similar speech last week when he called for more coal-powered electricity “to make sure that we protect the citizens inside this state.”

In essence, Adams’ statement reduces Utah’s energy picture to a simple math problem. If X is the energy produced in Utah and Y is the energy consumed here, then Y now exceeds X.

But Adams’ call for Utah’s energy independence ignores a basic reality: Going back decades, Utah has not produced all the energy it consumes, and it has not consumed all the energy it produces. The state both buys and sells energy, and historically that has fed the Utah economy and kept prices low for residents.

“Although it is attractive for the state of Utah to be ‘energy independent’ and have the luxury of exporting energy to other states, Utah enjoys good relationships with surrounding states and will not be deprived of the energy needed to keep its economy and way of life moving forward,” Michael Vanden Berg, senior geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, said in a May 2023 report. “However, the significant decrease in production, mostly natural gas and coal, does have impacts in the rural communities that rely on related jobs and economic contributions.”

Vanden Berg has been charting Utah’s energy landscape for more than a decade, and the Beehive State actually started consuming more energy than it produces in 2020, not last year, as Adams suggested. It’s also not “the first time ever.” Utah was a net energy importer in the 1960s and ‘70s.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The flow of energy in and out of the state is complicated. A web of natural gas, oil and gasoline pipelines and electric transmission lines connects regions, and the movement of products is dictated by markets, not state lawmakers.

Those markets are commodity-driven, meaning events on the other side of the globe can change prices as demand rises or falls.

“We’re seeing a shift in our energy resources nationwide, largely driven by market forces and consumer preferences for cleaner, cheaper options,” said Logan Mitchell, climate scientist and energy analyst for the nonprofit advocacy group Utah Clean Energy. “We expect these trends to accelerate as the prices of zero-emissions energy resources continue to decline. Utah is in a good position to benefit from this shift, given our abundant solar and storage resources.”

Utah’s overall energy consumption and production can be separated into four areas, and each tells a different story. Coal, natural gas and petroleum were responsible for roughly 30% each of the energy consumed in the state in 2021, with renewables taking another 7.4%.

On the production end, coal led with 34% of the state’s energy production in 2021, followed by natural gas at 33%, petroleum at 25% and renewables at 7.2%.


(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah coal is burned to produce electricity, principally at three large power plants in the state. Demand for it has fallen since production peaked at the turn of the century, largely because it is the most climate-damaging fossil fuel. One of the Utah plants, the Intermountain Power Project, will stop burning coal in 2025 and start burning a combination of natural gas and hydrogen.

That leaves Rocky Mountain Power’s two Emery County plants as the biggest consumers of Utah coal, along with a smaller amount getting exported to Asia. But Rocky Mountain now routinely ramps down the coal plants when cheaper renewable sources are available. There will be further limits on burning coal at the plants if the federal Ozone Transport Rule survives court challenges from Utah and other states.

Utah coal production in 2023 was the lowest since 1976, and 2024 is expected to be slightly higher but still well below 2022. Coal prices spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine but have settled back to previous levels.

(There is one other large, coal-burning power plant in Utah, the Bonanza facility near Vernal, which supplies power to electric cooperatives in rural Utah and surrounding states. Bonanza’s owner, Deseret Power, sources all of its coal from the mine it owns across the state line in Colorado.)

Natural gas

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Natural gas provides heat to 90% of Utah homes, but less than half of it comes from Utah. It also fuels some large industrial customers like Kennecott’s Magna smelter and some power plants like the Gadsby operation in Salt Lake City. Natural gas produces less greenhouse gas emissions of coal, but it still is a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change when burned and when it leaks into the atmosphere.

Dominion Energy, Utah’s largest natural gas provider, gets half its gas from Wexpro, a subsidiary it owns. Wexpro has gas reserves stretching from the Uinta Basin up to Pinedale, Wyo.

Jorgan Hofeling, spokesperson for Dominion Energy, said most of the Wexpro gas comes from Wyoming, but the company is adding wells in the Uinta Basin to boost Utah production.

Hofeling said having a dedicated supply from Wexpro insulates Utah customers from market volatility, which has been considerable in recent years.

“Over the last 12 months,” Hofeling said, “Wexpro production has saved customers over $180 million versus market prices.”

She said the other half of Utah’s gas supply comes from the market, meaning it generally is not Beehive State gas. “While we cannot know for certain where the gas originated from, based on the pipelines, we are fairly comfortable that the vast majority of our gas purchased is from the U.S.”

On the production side, natural gas and oil are often found together, and most of Utah’s gas production comes from the oil-rich Uinta Basin.

And production has been a roller coaster. The fracking boom earlier this century brought large amounts of gas to the market. Prices plummeted, which caused many Utah producers to shut down. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, which triggered a major effort to build out liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure to deliver American gas to Europe and elsewhere. That made prices jump, and Utah production is expected to rise over the short term.


(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Petroleum fuels the vast majority of transportation in Utah. The five refineries north of Salt Lake City turn crude oil into the gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel that drive the state.

Petroleum consumption in Utah has risen steadily with the population over the past 30 years, but production has not kept up. The state has not produced as much oil as it consumes since the 1980s. It’s unclear when, but a peak in consumption is likely coming because of the conversion to electric vehicles.

The refineries take in some Uinta Basin “waxy crude” that arrives by truck, but the majority of the crude oil refined in Utah arrives via pipeline from out of state, including some from Canada.

A new, larger market for the Uinta Basin crude has emerged in recent years, pushing Utah to its highest oil production ever last year. The oil is now being shipped by rail to the Gulf area and refined there for other markets, meaning most of Utah’s oil production does not go to Utahns.


(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Renewable energy, including wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal power, are the smallest segment but the fastest growing in both production and consumption. In general, Utah consumes more renewable power than it generates, and the gap has grown in recent years, perhaps because Utah utilities can buy solar power for next to nothing on sunny days.

Utah is adding renewable capacity quickly, particularly in the western part of the state. Much of it will feed into Rocky Mountain Power’s system and serve Utah’s municipal and rural electricity providers, but a large chunk also is contracted to out-of-state providers willing to pay more for clean energy.

All of Utah’s electricity providers are expanding their renewable resources.

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