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Will Utah's Inland Port move fossil fuels? Port critics worry it will, but no decisions have been made

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah leaders took more steps Monday to secure Salt Lake City's place in the global trade market, the critics continued to fight back — now with concerns that the Utah Inland Port will be a "dirty energy" port.

Ahead of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board's meeting Monday, members of a Utah inland port opposition group, the Coalition for Port Reform, issued statements expressing concerns about indications that the future Utah global trade hub will transfer and store fossil fuels, even though the port authority is only now getting up and running.

A Utah inland port — envisioned to create new rail, truck and air connections in Utah's global economy, as well attract major manufacturing companies and high-paying jobs — is considered potentially the largest economic development project in Utah's history.

"For months, members of the Coalition for Port Reform have been assured that we should not worry about the transfer and storage of fossil fuels at the inland port," said the group's statement, issued by Deeda Seed, a vocal inland port critic and a campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.

However, Seed noted that in the port board's October meeting, several board members "successfully lobbied for the inclusion of three entities with fossil fuel interests" on a new "technical committee."

The port board's chairman, Derek Miller — who is also CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber — proposed creation of a technical committee so experts could advise the port board on technical issues such as economic, transportation and environmental issues.

Miller suggested entities on the committee include the Utah Department of Transportation, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, and the Wasatch Front Regional.

But board member Rep. Francis Gibson, who was selected by outgoing House Speaker Greg Hughes to serve in his place, suggested representatives from the "extraction and mining industry" and from rural Utah to also serve on the committee.

But Gibson and board member Stuart Clason, Salt Lake County's regional economic development director, successfully lobbied for entities to be included on the board, including representatives from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining; the Community Impact Fund Board, which provides loans and grants to areas impacted by mineral resource development on federal lands; and the state's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which uses school trust lands to promote development and manages lands containing a wide variety of mineral resources.

The inclusion of those entities on the committee is "excessive" and "frankly, it raises a few concerns and perhaps suspicion on my part that the intention might be to slowly put a thumb the scale of the work … so that certain interests are favored," David Scheer, a coalition member, told the board during its public comment period on Monday.

"The bias on the technical committee is of extreme concern and at least leaves the appearance the board is trying to push the project in a certain direction," Scheer said.

But prior to Monday's meeting, Miller said in a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards he's not sure whether a future port would transfer or store fossil fuels, and that would depend "on what the market would accommodate."

"I think we recognize there are going to be people, in fact, they've said as much, that they're opposed to the port and they'll do anything or say anything to make sure that it doesn't happen," Miller said. "The job of this authority, this board, that we take very seriously, is to make sure that we move forward in a prudent way, that we're not rushed … and that everything we do is based on fact, not fear."

Miller added that he would have "a hard time imagining that Carbon and Emery county would find it economical to ship their coal north in order to have it sit in Salt Lake City, and then shipped south."

"I just don't understand how the economics of that would work," Miller said. "I can understand the concern with it, the fear of it. I can't understand why it would be economical to do it."

However, Miller also didn't rule it out. He noted that he's "a free market guy," and he doesn't foresee the port board "banning" anything "because of a political agenda."

"As long as it can be done in an environmentally safe way … why would we say yes or no?" Miller said.

Seed referenced a September 2018 video recording of the Uintah Basin Energy Summit, in which Jeff Hartley — a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry — discussed how the state's legislation creating the Utah inland port "was written so that there can be extensions running out to the Uintah Basin and to Carbon County and elsewhere so that we can move our goods to foreign markets."

Hartley is also the brother of Greg Hartley, Hughes' chief of staff.

Brian Moench, board president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a port critic, said in a statement "the more we learn about this, the more our worst fears about it are confirmed."

"It's a scheme to process, store and ship more fossil fuels in and out of Salt Lake City," Moench said. "The intent is to exploit our natural resources for the benefit of a very few, and the rest of us will pay for it. This is a 'dirty energy' inland port."

In the hall during the port board's closed session discussing possible hires, Seed confronted Jeff Hartley about whether the port will store and transfer fossil fuels. Jeff Hartley told her, "None of these decisions are up to me," noting that while he advocates for the industries, the Utah Inland Port Authority Board has the decision-making power.

"There's no conspiracy here," Jeff Hartley told Seed.

"We want this information out in the public, because I'm here to tell you right now if you've got big fossil fuel plans for something in Salt Lake City, you're in for a fight," Seed told Jeff Hartley.

Hartley then said he has "enormous" fossil fuel plans for Utah's inland port.

"Alright," Seed said. "It's on. Because you know what, Salt Lake City residents are not going to stand for that."

Hartley rebuked, "I didn't just say Salt Lake City."

In an interview with Deseret News after his discussion with Seed, Hartley said he thinks fossil fuels should be exported out of Utah, noting that there's "no purpose" in having an inland port unless exports can clear customs in a timely manner. He noted other ports that have customs clearance have long wait times.

"There's a way to mitigate all concerns with (moving) fossil fuels," Hartley said, noting that technology exists including electric trucks to help address air quality concerns.

"You'll never convince people who hate fossil fuels that they shouldn't hate fossil fuels, so I won't try to do that, "Hartley said. "But in Utah, the extractive industries — oil, gas, coal — are a huge part of our economy, and in rural Utah, they provide tremendous jobs that pay really well."