Commentary: Remember Utah’s Indispensable Coal Counties

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Miner take a look at names on the Carbon County Coal Miners' Memorial. Two statues and several large plaques with 1,400 names of fallen miners now resides in the Price Peace Park along Main Street.

During a presidential race in the not-too-distant past, one candidate campaigned successfully on his outreach to blue-collar voters, whom he called “the forgotten Americans.”

There was a time when blue-collar types were far from forgotten. The most popular TV character was an auto mechanic – the Fonz from “Happy Days.” His circle of friends included Laverne and Shirley, factory workers. Archie Bunker, meanwhile, was a loading dock foreman. James Evans of “Good Times” was a dock worker. B.J. McKay was a trucker. At the movies, you found Luke Skywalker, a kid growing up on a farm. On the radio, Billy Joel sang about Allentown. Bruce Springsteen sang exclusively about blue collar dreams.

By comparison, blue-collar people today seem invisible in pop culture.

But in the real world, these are indispensable citizens, people on whom we depend for the basic functioning of businesses, industry and civilization itself.

This year, Utah Foundation has focused squarely on the fate of one group of Utahns who have long filled the ranks of the state’s indispensable citizens – its coal industry workers. As our Coal Counties report series demonstrates, their industry is changing quickly, along with the prospects for the counties they live in.

About 1,000 people work in Utah’s coal mines. Another 1,500 people work in Utah’s five coal-fueled power plants. Beyond those numbers, trucking and other jobs support coal mining and plant operations.

But coal production has been declining in Utah. In 2015, production was down nearly half from 2001. One coal-fueled power plant closed that same year. Another coal-fueled operation is projected to end by 2025, and another by 2030.

It remains to be seen whether Trump administration policies can bolster the industry. Reductions in coal mine employment have come from an array of factors, including low natural gas prices, decreased demand and increased regulation of coal-fueled electricity. The cost of electricity from natural gas, wind and solar is now typically lower than operating, maintaining and upgrading coal-fueled resources. In 2015, natural gas electricity production surpassed coal nationally.

The bottom line: Across the nation, many coal communities have been shrinking.

That’s not necessarily the case in Utah’s coal communities, but it depends where you look. While the coal counties of Kane, Sanpete, Sevier, and Uintah counties have grown robustly in the past 25 years, the populations in Carbon, Emery and Millard counties have stood still. Collectively, Utah’s coal counties have averaged about half the percentage of the statewide growth.

Gov. Gary Herbert is looking to create 25,000 new jobs in Utah’s 25 non-Wasatch Front counties by 2020. There is a broad and deep effort toward this end. The Utah Legislature has passed bills to bolster economic development, and numerous state agencies are involved in the effort. Several public-private partnerships are working on rural job creation. Utah’s coal counties themselves are playing a lead role.

With an uncertain future for coal mining and coal-fueled electricity in Utah, diversification may hold the key. For industry, there may be opportunities for diversification in the uses of coal, such as carbon fiber and liquid-coal alternative fuels. And local economies will need to look for ways to diversify that fit their profile, examining the potential in agriculture, tech jobs, manufacturing and tourism. These communities may also be able to turn some of their weaknesses into strengths by marketing their available work force and lower property values to expanding manufacturers and call centers as a potential low-cost alternative to heavily urbanized areas.

Economic change is a fact of life. Baghdad and Damascus each had a day in the sun. Venice was once the center of the economic world; now it’s a vacation stop. Closer to home, Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans must look to the history books to recover their economic glory days.

But with effort, flexibility and creativity, Utah’s coal counties might someday look at this time as a turning point – a time when their true glory days were only in the making.

To read Utah Foundation’s Coal Counties report series, visit www.utahfoundation.org.

Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org with any comments, questions or suggestions for research.