Stan Holmes: Who would really benefit from coal country proposals?

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 1 million tons of Utah-mined coal passes through the Levin-Richmond Terminal on the San Francisco Bay each year on its way to Japan. The city of Richmond, Calif., where the terminal has operated for 37 years, is poised to ban coal handling, potentially blocking a key export pathway for Utah's coal production.

Utah coal country officials are moving forward with their portion of the inland port program: a rural satellite port.

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, based in Price, has issued a request for proposal for consultants who would study the feasibility of a “distributed logistics” facility, preferably a transport terminal near Salina, in Sevier County. The move is clearly meant to advance SCIC’s fossil fuel exports agenda.

But who really benefits?

Some background: SCIC is funded by the Community Impact Fund Board with royalty money the state gets from oil, gas and coal mining leases on federal land in Utah. Those public funds are intended to help rural communities dependent upon the declining fossil fuel industry. Consequences of that economic dependence include high unemployment, poverty, out-migration and opioid death rates among the nation’s highest, according to the Kem C. Gardner Institute’s Coal Country Strike Team.

But instead of helping coal country communities transition to a sustainable economic future, the SCIC and CIB — with state legislative support — have increased spending on fossil fuel projects, some out of state. Examples: $53 million for a West Coast coal export facility; $28 million for a Uinta Basin Railway to export oil; $50 million since 2012 for roads that facilitate extraction of natural gas and other carbon products.

Now, there’s the inland port program, with legislated funding mechanisms to develop a network of satellite ports — “project areas” — statewide. And it’s no surprise that Salina heads the list of potential sites, as Sevier County Commissioner Garth Ogden holds seats on the SCIC board, the CIB and the Utah Inland Port Authority board. Utah’s top coal exporter, Wolverine Fuels, operates in Sevier County. SCIC’s initiative makes possible the development of a coal transfer terminal at Salina that could connect with a long-sought Central Utah Rail Project link to the Union Pacific hub at Levan.

The new rail line, supported by Sevier County, would save Wolverine having to truck coal to Levan, facilitating its export shipments to Asia. Wolverine and its promoters benefit, but who else?

To its credit, the RFP encourages applicants to consider “critical success factors” such as regulatory issues, geopolitical risks and access to international markets. Were it not the SCIC making the decision, the new trade infrastructure project could boost future economic prospects for working class rural Utahns rather than continued subsidies for a coterie of extraction industry profiteers.

Keep in mind that the number of Utah coal miners has dwindled to less than 2,000, thanks to market forces and mechanization. And despite efforts by the Governor’s Energy Office to guarantee a coal and gas export stream through Mexican ports, bypassing public opposition in California and Oregon, any trade scheme based on fossil fuels is vulnerable to global political winds shifting against the primary contributors to climate change.

Who will offer Utahns — rural and urban — economically and environmentally sustainable trade strategies and implementation plans to compete with what the SCIC-CIB fossil fuel barons have been advancing? How will rural Utah pursue new economic development opportunities to achieve the governor’s goal of adding 25,000 quality jobs?

Don’t look to the Utah Legislature for leadership, after members rejected the 2020 Utah Roadmap’s call for a task force to study economic transition assistance for rural communities. And UIPA’s delayed business plan offers little hope, given what the SCIC RFP portends. That project will certainly set a precedent for other satellite port proposals.

Will Utah Coal Country Strike Team and Utah Roadmap consultants somehow fill the planning void left by Utah’s deficient leadership?

All Utahns have a stake in how this dynamic unfolds.

Stan Holmes is co-founder and outreach coordinator of the all-volunteer Utah Citizens Advocating Renewable Energy (UCARE). He is a retired world history teacher.