How Utah can make a responsible transition to low-carbon future, the Editorial Board writes

More copper from Utah’s Kennecott is a sign that an electrified future is coming.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks move rocks in the Bingham Copper Mine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.

There is a world to be saved, and there are fortunes to be made, by shifting our economy from one based on fossil fuels to one that runs on renewable ways to generate electricity.

What we mustn’t lose sight of is, even when a source of energy or a means of transportation has little or no carbon footprint, that it still leaves a mark.

An example from close to home is the news that Kennecott’s 100-year-old Bingham Copper Mine west of Salt Lake City is opening a new vein of ore. This one, rather than the open-pit variety that can be seen from space, will be an underground burrow dug by, perhaps, electric machines rather than the diesel-powered vehicles that now do most of the heavy lifting.

Mining is an inherently dirty business. Dust, toxic minerals, waste products, fossil fuel emissions. It can be enough to make Utahns wonder whether the global benefits of a more electrified economy will be worth the local expansion of a mine that is now the state’s largest source of atmospheric pollutants.

It can be. If official Utah will look this gift horse in the mouth, at least a little bit, to create and enforce standards that will minimize the local suffering we will have to endure to create a worldwide benefit. With the booming market for copper and other metals, Kennecott can afford to meet strict standards.

Industry and mining interests in the United States have long made the argument that extractive activities should be nurtured here rather than farmed out to less developed nations, as our labor, safety and environmental standards are stricter than theirs. It is time to hold our industrial establishment to that promise.

This is a case where the cliche applies. We do not want to make the perfect — a life without the mining, manufacturing and grid development that will include their own environmental hazards — be the enemy of the good: an ever-more-sustainable, carbon-free, energy economy.

Kennecott’s expansion could be only one of many business decisions that will be made in Utah in the coming years that could, with public pressure and government help, move the Beehive State into the top echelon of the sustainable energy business. In addition to all that copper, we have other minerals, some of which you may never have heard of, that will also be useful or essential in the creation of an electrified economy.

What we need, and what we have, are major research universities, a strong entrepreneurial class, a lot of venture capital, as well as good spots for solar, wind and geothermal energy production.

What we don’t need is our political and political donor class standing around moaning for the loss of the good ol’ days of drilling for oil and digging up coal. Coal is dead. Oil and gas will be with us as long as the market will support them, which stands to be quite a while, even at reduced levels.

Real leadership from the governor’s office and the Legislature would create reasonable fiscal incentives for sustainable energy sources. It would mean working with local government, business and environmental activists to create a nimble regulatory regime that can get no- and low-carbon power sources and the necessary electric grid expansion up and running with all deliberate speed.

The motivation for the Kennecott expansion, of course, is money. But the reason there is money to be made is that more and more of the world’s machines, particularly automobiles, are going to be run on electricity, not fossil fuels.

The giants of the auto industry — Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, among others — are going all but all in on electric vehicles. Even such iconic American cars as Ford’s Mustang are going electric.

Ford, as just one example, is dropping billions of dollars and hiring thousands of employees to create new electric vehicle and battery plants in Kentucky, Tennessee and Germany.

Such vehicles need copper for wiring and batteries. So will all-electric homes, appliances, heating systems and so on.

Governments are offering both sticks and carrots to push industry in that direction. The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act — which might more accurately be titled the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act — includes money for electric charging stations and tax credits of up to $7,500 for purchasers of electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, California’s latest clean-air law will require that all new vehicles sold there must be either electric or hydrogen-powered by 2035. Seventeen states that piggy-back on California’s auto standards (Utah, unfortunately, is not one of them) are figuring out whether to follow suit.

At base, though, the move to an electrified economy is being made by the free market. By customers, stockholders, inventors, investors and managers who see the future and want to be part of it.

Utah will be kicking itself for decades to come if it doesn’t take full advantage of its good positioning to ride that trend to a clean and prosperous future.