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In our opinion: Utah should focus on struggling counties as demand for coal declines

Dan Baker, CEO and president of the Bronco Utah Mine, looks over a coal stack pile at the mine near Emery on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
Dan Baker, CEO and president of the Bronco Utah Mine, looks over a coal stack pile at the mine near Emery on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When Carbon County officials recently proposed tax increases of more than 700 percent, residents were shocked by what looked like audacious over-reach, but it's really a case of a community trying to come to grips with an unfavorable economic reality. The county is named for its abundant deposits of coal, the mining of which has produced enough revenue for public coffers to cover a lot of local government expenses, but that was in the past.

Now, the county is seeing sharp and steady drops in coal-related royalties and is looking for ways to make up for the shortfall, or cut services. After public pushback, leaders retracted the original proposal to increase the county’s municipal services levy by 707 percent, as well as a proposed 45 percent increase in its tax assessment and collection levy. The increases were originally designed to cover for a loss of revenues tied to coal extraction as a result of what local leaders refer to as “the war on coal.”

Demand for coal is, in fact, declining worldwide as a result of macro trends that argue against any rebound in production. They include the ascendancy of natural gas, a growing antipathy toward fossil fuels as sources of pollution and technological advances in production of alternative energy. Communities across the country tied to the health of the coal industry are suffering, and it’s unfortunate that some in those communities are focused on placing blame as opposed to looking to build new economic engines.

In Utah’s coal country, mining is still the main driver of the local economy, and will remain so for years to come. But the odds are sharply stacked against any revival of the industry to its previous heights. Coal jobs have been declining for decades, as a result of mechanization in the mines as well as decreasing demand. Promises by the Trump administration to reduce regulatory pressures on coal operations may help but won’t come close to fueling a rebound in coal production sufficient enough to make up for declines in domestic and international demand.

Attention now needs to be devoted to helping those displaced by job loss to find new opportunities. Several pieces of legislation have been proposed in Congress to that end, largely focusing on ways to reclaim mining land for new economic development, with some measures also providing training and other assistance to out-of-work miners. What comes of those proposals in a divided Congress is hard to predict, which calls for more focus on the state and local level.

The posture of Utah policy to date has been to invest time and money into developing “strategic coal technologies and a sustainable coal economy in Utah,” under the Governor’s Office of Energy Development. That is not an unwise investment, though neither is it a panacea. In the long term, it may be more effective for the state to escalate programs aimed at helping new startup businesses in rural areas. Other coal communities have engaged in entrepreneurial strategies to foster business growth that could offset the diminishing contribution of mining interests.

Carbon County is in a difficult place in trying to balance its budget given the loss of coal-related revenue. It’s in the state’s interest to focus on how to help communities that have long contributed to economic prosperity statewide find new footing, and to explore ways to find new opportunity for those whose future can no longer be tied exclusively to the health of an industry in decline.