Legislators want to talk about “hazards of net-zero energy” but not the “social cost of carbon”

A resolution calling clean power a threat gets a fast track, but another on the hazards of greenhouse gases languishes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A solar farm in Wellington, Utah, on Wednesday, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. Utah legislators are weighing a resolution on the "hazards" of net-zero energy.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

It’s the tale of two resolutions, and it clarifies the Legislature’s priorities around energy and climate.

In the packed final days of the legislative session, the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee took time Monday to consider and approve Rep. Ken Ivory’s HJR25 (“Joint resolution highlighting the hazards of net-zero energy”).

“We need to have great foresight as we make changes in energy infrastructure,” Ivory, R-West Jordan, told the committee, who said the federal goal to move the nation to carbon-neutral (“net-zero”) energy is a flawed mandate that will leave Utah without adequate power.

The resolution “recognizes the growing threat to the state’s affordable, reliable, dispatchable, and secure energy from net-zero energy policies that mandate predominantly foreign-sourced, intermittent, and weather-dependent forms of electricity generation.”

That committee hearing came only a week after the resolution was received from the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, which writes the bills that lawmakers request.

Compare that with another House Joint Resolution from Rep. Jen Dailey Provost, D-Salt Lake City.

HJR11 (“Joint resolution for establishing a state social cost of carbon”) recognizes the contribution of human-produced greenhouse gases to climate change, and it calls on the state to consider the cost of carbon emissions when weighing policy choices.

Legislative Research produced Dailey-Provost’s resolution on Jan. 27, 21 days before Rep. Ivory’s resolution, but the House Rules Committee apparently never even got to vote on sending it to a committee for a hearing.

“At the end of the day, the Rules chair and the members of majority leadership decide what comes up for a vote,” said Dailey-Provost. “My understanding is that it never came up for a vote. I think this is reflective of how politicized energy discussions have gotten over the last few years.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The leadership treatment of two 2023 energy-related legislative resolutions shows "how politicized energy discussions have gotten over the last few years,” says Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake. Here, Dailey-Provost talks with Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City on the final day of the 2022 session, March 4, 2022.

In presenting his resolution, Ivory said the message is not that clean energy isn’t worthwhile. It’s that it shouldn’t be mandated by the federal government. The Biden Administration has set ambitious goals for decarbonizing the nation, and some states that produce fossil fuels have pushed back on those goals.

Ivory pointed out that the United States doesn’t have the raw materials and manufacturing capacity to produce enough solar panels, batteries and other renewable energy equipment, and he said the federal mandates force more dependence on foreign sources that employ child and slave labor.

Josh Craft, government and corporate relations manager for the nonprofit Utah Clean Energy, said the resolution “implies Utah won’t see benefits from clean energy.” He pointed out that conservative states are now understanding there is large economic opportunity in clean energy, and Utah should understand that, too. He pointed to Georgia as an example of a conservative state that is building out a new energy economy.

“We have the talent, the knowhow and the opportunity,” Craft said.

Tom Moyer of the Utah Citizens Climate Lobby said his group agrees that affordable, reliable energy is important, but he said HJR25 conflicts with the Community Renewable Energy Act the Legislature passed in 2019. That bill allows cities to pursue their own net-zero plans.

But Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum spoke in favor of the resolution, echoing legislators who say Utah needs to control all of its energy sources. “We need to be self-sustainable.”

No one defined what self-sustainable means, but Utah does not produce all the energy resources it consumes. Most Utahns get their electricity from Rocky Mountain Power, a regional provider that draws on sources from Oregon to Wyoming in addition to Utah’s power plants. The largest natural gas provider, Dominion Energy, draws natural gas from other states to add to what is produced in Utah. From a transportation standpoint, Utah’s gasoline refineries get most of their crude oil from out of state, including Canada.

HJR25 passed the House Tuesday on a 54-19 vote, and now goes to the Senate.

Like Ivory’s, Dailey-Provost’s resolution is nonbinding, and it doesn’t say anything about the state developing a carbon fee or tax, as many including Sen. Mitt Romney have suggested. It says the state would promote “the development or adoption of state social cost of carbon estimates calculated using the best practices” and consider those costs when making policy decisions.

There are 14 states that calculate a social cost for carbon. Dailey-Provost wants to fashion Utah’s after Minnesota’s system.

She said she understands her colleagues’ concerns about fossil fuels being under attack, but that doesn’t mean they should attack clean fuels. “They aren’t mutually exclusive. We can have a diverse energy portfolio and still worry about the impact of greenhouse gases on our health. A hostile attitude toward net zero energy is shortsighted. It’s where we need to go.”

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.