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Utah coal: A story of families, jobs and America's future

EDITOR'S NOTE: Coal has been a part of the fabric of Utah for 161 years. But its future as a key energy resource is in question and may have reached a critical tipping point. Today staff Writer Amy Joi O'Donoghue begins a three-day look at the issues surrounding this issue and the impact on Utahns.

ORDERVILLE, Kane County — A few years ago, Riley Anderson was a long-distance parent and husband, compelled to take care of home life over a phone, imagining kisses and hugs from his little girl and wondering when he'd see his family again.

Days stretched into weeks while he worked out-of-town construction jobs or chased the pipeline, working on the installation of a natural gas line across much of Utah.

He now lives in the town where he grew up, has since moved his family to Orderville and can wave at his father from the kitchen window. It's where he graduated from high school and punched cows and now where he takes Andee, 7, to the local riding arena and teaches her to handle her big dun horse alternately nicknamed Elvis and Thunder.

A job opening at the local coal mine put Anderson's family back together again.

"As long as there is work here, this is a good place to raise a family," he said. "This mine has been a good opportunity for a lot of people to be able to stay here, make a living."

His wife, Hanna, said she no longer feels like a single mom in a married relationship.

"We would have never been able to come here and survive if not for the mine," she said. "Without it, we would still be sitting in Mesquite, struggling."

Anderson was hired to work for Alton Coal Development and is the surface mining superintendent at the site, which has plans for a 3,500-acre expansion to mine coal on federal land. Another expansion to private land is also planned, pending before state regulators.

Both efforts are the focus of a concerted campaign by the Sierra Club and other critics of coal mining who want to see the resource stay in the ground.

Alton submitted its application to mine the federal coal 11 years ago, a process that received another delay when the Bureau of Land Management announced in early August it was extending a public comment period on its environmental analysis of the proposal.

The controversy over Alton's planned expansion illustrates the growing tension and scrutiny enveloping the use of coal as an energy source, not only in Utah, but across the country and globally in places such as China.

Earlier this year, the Sierra Club and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $60 million campaign aimed at closing half of all U.S. coal-fired power plants by 2017, calling coal production an outdated technology, hurtful to both the economy and to health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan released this month is the nation's most stringent set of regulations aimed at curbing emissions from existing power plants, the most significant weapon the Obama administration has unveiled thus far in what conservatives call the White House's "war on coal."

In Utah, the landscape of coal, the mining industry and its energy portfolio are changing as a result of these pressures — pressures that threaten to alter a relationship forged 161 years ago when the territorial legislature offered a "cash prize" for the first usable coal deposits found within 40 miles of Salt Lake City.

Utah has 1,605 people employed in its coal mines directly, with the industry generating nearly $594 million in production in 2014, according to Rob Simmons, the energy policy and law manager for the Governor's Office of Energy Development.

Out of 25 coal-producing states, Utah is ranked 14th overall in the nation, but has seen its demand for Utah coal-produced electricity decrease by 64 percent between 2008 and 2013 due to a variety of factors that include low natural gas prices, the recession and environmental regulations.

Amid this pressure, the push is on for "clean coal" technology and ways to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions, reducing them to very low levels so power plants can withstand regulatory and environmental scrutiny.

In the interim, the coal mining industry in Utah and across the country is compelled to weather the tempest.

Consider:

• Utah's oldest power plant, Carbon, closed earlier this year in the wake of a new federal mercury emission rule that took effect. With the plant's closure came the loss of 70 jobs impacting Carbon and Emery counties.

• The Deer Creek Mine in Emery County, owned by PacifiCorp, shut down this year, leading to 182 lost jobs after the utility company said the mine was too costly to operate.

• The Utah Geological Survey said the state's coal mines face steady depletion of their reserves and mining conditions are becoming increasingly difficult. The West Ridge Mine is expected to close later this year.

• Demand for Utah coal has sharply decreased domestically with the conversion of power plants from coal to natural gas, according to the Utah Geological Survey, and about one-fifth of the nation's coal-fired generating capacity has already been retired.

Alton's Coal Hollow mine sits on a coal field where Utah geologists conservatively estimate there are 9.1 billion tons of recoverable coal. It is Utah's only above-ground, or surface mine — what critics call a strip mine — and is about 15 miles away from Bryce Canyon National Park.

The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign has launched strident opposition to the mining operation and expansion plans, citing possible impacts to the park, wildlife and the rural community's way of life, poised to change with the rumblings of more coal haul trucks down Main Street in Alton and in Panguitch. The organization brought on a Utah "organizer" in February to fight coal in the state for the first time and go after Rocky Mountain Power's coal utilization.

Beyond the environmental impacts of coal mining and burning it for fuel, critics attack the financial viability of coal in a nation that is increasingly turning its attention to renewable resources like wind and solar.

Wind, sun and coal

"I guess when the wind stops and the sun isn't shining, we won't have any power," argues Bob Nead, one of the owners of Alton Coal.

He's a big man with a soft, Southern drawl and a sharp sense of humor. He keeps his crews laughing, even if they appear a little uncertain how to take his wit.

"We are so regulated it is unbelievable," he said. "It's strictly about harassment from the Sierra Club. It is about not burning coal, not anything else."

Anderson, sitting in the cab of a big white pickup directing those surface mining operations, said he doesn't think much about the complaints over coal.

When Alton began mining coal, company officials promised they would hire locals for the above-ground mining operations, bringing on unemployed or out-of-sorts men who could not find a decent living in their hometown.

Anderson has been with the company two years and benefitted from that promise.

He insists on wearing his cowboy hat underneath the hard hat, a symbol of how he grew up living.

"This is all new to me," noting that his father and grandfather ranched. "It is a great opportunity for families in this area and to not have to travel. It is a good-paying job, with good benefits and you are home every night."

But the changing landscape is something most Utahns, especially along the Wasatch Front, overlook, according to state officials.

"Our whole way of life is based on our power system. I think Utah residents take it for granted," Simmons said.

Battle lines

Like other coal-rich states such as Pennsylvania or those with abundant hydropower, Utah's electricity rates are among the 10 lowest in the country and well below the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Coal critics say those cheap rates come with other costs via health and planet-damaging pollution emitted from the burning of fossil fuels.

In the United States, power plants emit 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists say contributes to climate change.

The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign has targeted coal-fired power plants in Utah, with a lawsuit filed Aug. 21 against state regulators regarding the Hunter plant, along with legal battle being waged over regional haze groups say threatens Utah's national parks experience.

Coal "supporters" have fired back. With the industry under attack and jobs dwindling, Friends of Coal West and the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute have held rallying meetings in Carbon County, where communities are becoming increasingly nervous over a future linked to coal.

"You lose it and what do we have?" questioned Danny Blanton, a Carbon County artist working on a coal miner's memorial set to be unveiled Sept. 7 in downtown Price.

Locals say that when the Great Recession began to sweep through the country in 2008, it largely bypassed communities like Huntington, Helper and Price due in part to the active coal industry.

"We saw it dip but we did not see the escalation of unemployment and housing because we are largely stable. In my personal view, we weathered it better than other places in the state because of the coal industry," said Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter.

Potter said that 80 percent of the county's economic livelihood comes from coal mining and power generation, financial well-being that is at risk because of increasing federal regulations and the anti-coal campaign of environmental groups.

"I am really concerned, and that concern comes from the overreach of the federal government and especially with the EPA," he said. "The coal that is mined here is wonderful, both in its viability in energy production and its ability to be clean. And the technology is there that will allow mining to remain a large part of the economy here."

Land and people

The pressure is already forcing tough decisions on the region's coal miners.

Over a barbecue lunch at Nead's Alton Coal mine, a group of workers discusses the jobs they once had at places like Deer Creek, Lila or West Ridge mines.

The men work four 10-hour shifts in Kane County, then drive the three-and-a-half hours it takes to get home to Huntington or Price to be with their families on weekends.

"It's a good living, good money, with good people," said Josh Spigarelli, a Helper resident who worked at West Ridge and Lila Canyon mines.

At Alton, the miners pull down an average of $40,000 to $50,000 a year — not counting overtime — and a fiscal analysis on energy and energy-related mining released this year by the Governor's Office of Energy Development puts coal mining income at nearly $133 million for 2013.

The men are in large part following the resource. Utah's deep underground coal mines are getting harder to work, with expansions planned at four mines to get at more accessible seams of coal.

Utah has the deepest coal mines in the country, but at Alton the coal is barely below the surface, part of one of the nation's most abundant coal beds that stretches under Bryce Canyon National Park, the town cemetery and even onto Glen Canyon National Recreational Area.

The town postmaster, Orval Palmer, said when a Utah congressman visited Alton in the 1970s and asked the location of the coal bed, Palmer just stamped his foot and pointed down.

"I told him, 'You're standing on it," he said. "It's everywhere."

The Sierra Club's national director, Michael Brune, said the proposed expansions of Utah's coal mines need a reality check and ignore the hard truth that coal as an energy source is on its way out.

"What we are seeing is a rapid, dramatic transformation in the electric industry," he said. "Coal is being significantly downsized and being replaced by a whole lot of other resources … The fact that so much coal is coming off-line is really historic."

Coal reliance

The majority of the coal produced in Utah is consumed in Utah at its power plants, providing about 70 percent of the state's power generation, down this year with the Carbon plant's closure and the 2014 start of the Lakeside natural gas plant's second unit, Laura Nelson, executive director of the Governor's Office of Energy Development, said.

While it has no plans to expand its reliance on coal-fired electrical generation, Rocky Mountain Power is in the crosshairs of environmental groups like the Sierra Club and HEAL Utah, which say the utility company's energy portfolio locks in coal use over the next 20 years, ignoring "cleaner" sources like wind and solar.

The groups argued last week in a formal petition that the utility's regulator, the Public Service Commission, should reject Rocky Mountain Power's long-range blueprint for energy because it is too coal-heavy, forcing rate payers to buy power that is "bad for their health."

But all sources of energy have a tradeoff, creating their own unique brand of environmental impacts — from the 3,500-acre Mohave solar plant that chased away a Los Angeles commitment for power because of impacts to wildlife to a plan that proposed anchoring 170 wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod, spoiling ocean views.

At his energy summit earlier this year, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stood by the state's reliance on coal, while noting at the same time a transition to cleaner energy sources will naturally occur as technology improves.

While there have been painful signals about the health of Utah's coal mining industry, there are other indicators for optimism.

A coalition of four rural Utah counties, supported by the Governor's Office of Energy Development, have committed to spend $53 million for a bulk export terminal for Utah coal and other products at a former Oakland, California, Army base.

The seaside shipping port will help Utah's coal industry offset weakening domestic demand by tapping into other countries' hunger for coal, especially in the Asian market.

Export of Utah coal to foreign markets is not new — the state was shipping coal to the Pacific Rim in the 1970s, and in the mid-1990s foreign exports were booming.

That leaves two points of view: either investment in Oakland signals a strong, viable future for Utah's coal mining industry, or it represents a desperate attempt to keep it on life support when the plug should have been pulled long ago.

The Utah Geological Survey's Dave Tabet said the state has enough coal to keep mining for another century.

"There is a lot of coal in Utah if people want to continue to keep mining it," he said, noting it could carry on for 50 to 100 years if people keep burning it and there are markets demanding the resource. "Right now, given markets and the political climate, coal is being seen as a dwindling resource in terms of desirability in the marketplace."

Back in Carbon County, Potter says that view needs to change.

"I hate the war on coal, I hate what the administration is doing, especially the EPA," he said. "The outreach against coal does away with an industry and it does away with jobs. And it does away with the biggest thing Utah has to offer: the low cost of utilities. I think we are going to have to be ready to stand up and fight."

The Andersons aren't spending a lot of time thinking about that fight going on around them, busy with their lives in a community that graduated six high school seniors in May.

On one night after work, Riley Anderson is able to sit down with Kaylee, 15, and helps her with a resume, part of a homework assignment. He gives a kiss to Hanna, who is cooking spaghetti and meat sauce on the stove.

When Andee sweeps into his arms, the quiet father almost blushes in front of company.

"This job," Hanna Anderson said after a pause, "has made all the difference for us."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com; Twitter: amyjoi16