A great philosopher once said that it takes half as long as a relationship lasted for you to get over it. (OK, it was Charlotte from “Sex and the City.”) By that measure, I should have stopped following the news from Kansas three years ago.
But I couldn’t help but notice the big news out of the Sunflower State last week. And how it compared, unfavorably, to significant events here in Utah.
Panasonic, the Japan-based global tech company, announced it was going to build a $4 billion plant to make lithium-ion batteries for Teslas and other electric vehicles on the site of a long-derelict ammunition plant near DeSoto in northeast Kansas. It will supposedly be the largest such creature on the planet.
When I say long-derelict, I mean that people were wondering what to do with the 14-square-mile plot when I worked for a now-defunct newspaper just down the highway during the Reagan administration. Various proposals, including a giant Wizard of Oz theme park, fell apart, in part because the place was full of toxic chemicals left over from three wars’ worth of making bullets and shells.
The Kansas Reflector reports that the finished Panasonic plant is to employ 4,000 workers making an average of $30 an hour. With another 3,800 jobs projected from the economic ripple effect, the state says the annual economic jackpot will be $2.5 billion.
The big economic news out of Utah last week? Approval of the Uinta Basin Railway, an 85-mile-long track that needed the OK from the National Forest Service to be laid across 12 miles of the Ashley National Forest on its way to Colorado.
Kansas takes a huge step into the future of energy. Utah demonstrates how it is mired in its filthy past.
The Unita rail plan, strongly supported by local governments and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, is a way for oil from some remote parts of Utah to more easily make its way to national markets. Supposedly it will allow the region to more than triple its output of petroleum, from some 90,000 barrels a day to between 225,000 and 350,000 barrels.
For some reason, Cox and friends are touting this as a good thing. A week after the Great Salt Lake set yet another record for its lowest level in recorded history. The week before Salt Lake City matched an all-time high temperature record of 107.
The governor describes the oil-oiled railroad as a way to diversify the region’s economy. How in the Utah summer blazes does drilling more oil wells in a state that is already handcuffed to fossil fuels coming (selling it) and going (using it) diversify anything?
Pretending to care about Utah’s heat, shrinking lakes and rivers, wildfires and toxic dust at the same time you are happy about more oil production in Utah means one of two things: You don’t get it. Or you think the rest of us don’t get it.
There was some good economic/environmental news in Utah. Zions Bank cut the ribbon on its new tech campus, a reclaimed steel mill site in Midvale, that will generate 75% of the energy it uses with on-site solar and buy the rest in sustainable energy credits. The feel-good aspect of all this takes a back seat to the business sense involved in saving money and attracting the cream of tech sector workers.
Apparently, competition for the Panasonic plant came down to Kansas and Oklahoma. Kansas won mostly because its Democratic governor and Republican Legislature dangled $829 million in state-funded incentives — tax credits and refunds, relocation aid, money for training — which the Okies wouldn’t match.
The process played out mostly in secret, so I have no idea if Utah was ever in the running. Maybe it’s just as well if we weren’t.
Unemployment here is virtually nil, our highways are jammed and housing costs are sky high. Not only would we have no place to put 4,000 new employees and their families, our educational system already can’t keep up with the demand for tech-savvy workers. (Coverage of the Panasonic plant doesn’t mention its water-consumption needs, so that might be another reason why we shouldn’t be jealous.)
And it’s not that the Panasonic project is all unicorns and cotton candy.
Beyond the tax breaks and the secrecy, lithium-ion technology is not without its dirty fingerprints. Mining the necessary raw materials often involves nasty operations in Third World nations with little in the way of environmental regulations or labor rights.
We are also not yet to the point where we know how to make the batteries that power zero-carbon automobiles, trucks and trains in a carbon-free process. Though there is some hope for a future in which batteries can be manufactured in a low-carbon supply chain, powered by wind, solar and, of course, batteries.
Just not, apparently, in Utah.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, notes that Kansas is a very red state, but sometimes elects Democrats as governor when Kansas Republicans nominate their version of Greg Hughes rather than their version of Spencer Cox.