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Utah energy sector could benefit under Trump

Dr. Laura Nelson reads a proclamation from Gov. Gary Herbert in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, declaring November 2016 as Alternative Fuel Vehicle Awareness Month. An electric vehicle is on display in the background.
Dr. Laura Nelson reads a proclamation from Gov. Gary Herbert in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, declaring November 2016 as Alternative Fuel Vehicle Awareness Month. An electric vehicle is on display in the background.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While some observers are uncertain about the incoming Donald Trump administration's impact on the Utah economy, one local official is cautiously optimistic about possible expansion of energy production in the Beehive State.

Laura Nelson, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development, says Utah deserves an A grade for its current policies on energy, but that could improve to an A+ after Trump takes office next month and some prudent strategies are implemented.

Nelson said she expects some optimism from the energy industry as the opportunity to reduce regulation and expand exploration increases under the new administration.

“I think there will be a pretty significant push for some collaboration between industry and federal partners,” she said. "(Previously) the biggest issue has been uncertainty around what the regulatory framework would look like, coupled with the cost of (proposed) new regulations.”

Nelson said people often believe regulation will solve problems, but that is not always the case.

“The challenge with some federal policies is that they are blanket policies or regulations that may not apply in specific regions,” she explained. “We need to tailor solutions to meet the specific problems of a particular (area).”

As an example, Nelson noted that Utah is committed to identifying approaches to improve air quality and working with industry to accomplish that goal.

“What we want, though, are cost-effective approaches that really do have benefits connected to the (government) regulation,” she said.

Nelson suggested that there needs to be a more cooperative effort made between industry and government to develop rules that allow for companies to pursue energy development in a way that is responsible to the environment and the people of Utah.

“If we can improve the collaboration with the state and federal government, we could really get more effective outcomes and hopefully prevent situations such as what occurred in Michigan from happening,” she said, referencing the drinking water contamination issue in Flint.

Michigan changed its water treatment policies for the Flint, resulting in lead contamination in the city’s drinking water supply. The matter became a local public health crisis.

If industry behaved in a similar way that was blatantly detrimental to society, there would be little chance it could still retain the "social license" to operate, Nelson said.

Striking a balance that provides reasonable regulation but is not unduly burdensome, she said, will be critical in establishing a fair framework for development of energy and other critical needs that promote economic growth.

“Having more effective directed legislation along with a focus on revitalizing our infrastructure can lead to better environmental outcomes rather than just having restrictions in place,” Nelson said.

Having an administration that supports energy development and reduced regulation would allow for access to the resources that "enhance our quality of life," she said, and is key to improving the state’s economic outlook.

However, industry would have to remain committed to being good stewards of the public trust for the collaboration to be successful long term, Nelson said.

“We’ve made tremendous strides in Utah, and industry is overall motivated that they are generating the best outcomes for the environment because they want to have the opportunity to make profits,” she said. “If they don’t have the social license to operate, that won’t occur.”