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Who is in charge of rural Utah’s future?

SHARE Who is in charge of rural Utah’s future?

Workers watch drilling and blasting at the Bronco Utah Mine near Emery, Emery County, on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah’s fossil fuel industry fared well in the recent special session of the Utah Legislature. While legislators authorized some COVID-19 federal relief aid to farmers, renters and other economically stressed Utahns, they rejected an opportunity to shift $53 million from an Oakland coal port fund to rural communities in need of education, health care and economic development assistance. Instead, the final special session bill, SB6009, handed oil, gas and mining companies an extra $5 million in grants.  

Repurposing that $53 million coal port fund could help rural Utah residents improve infrastructure, stabilize their economies and end their dependency on the declining fortunes of coal and other fossil fuels. The Utah Coal Country Strike Team, based at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, has already set some initiatives in motion. The team awarded $75,000 grants to the coal county towns of Price and Castle Dale to reinvigorate their communities with “workforce training, tourism infrastructure, housing revitalization and economic development incentives.”

How many similar grants could be made across Utah for $53 million? More than 700. The first of these grants might be used to compile a statewide list of currently unfunded and underfunded municipal and county infrastructure projects. Richfield needs a new sewer treatment plant. An elementary school in San Juan County wants solar panels. Scipio’s economic development would be enhanced by broadband.

Would our state benefit more from hundreds of rural community development grants than by pouring $53 million into the pockets of out-of-state coal port developers?

What seems like a no-brainer has not yet registered with four coal county commissioners in Carbon, Emery, Sevier, and Sanpete counties. They’ve offered $20 million of the $53 million fund just to bail out the bankrupt Oakland coal port developer. In what is clearly a slap-in-the-face to the strike team efforts, the Carbon and Emery commissioners are working at cross purposes to the intent of the two $75,000 municipal grants that were made in their counties to wean local economies off coal dependency. We can guess that constituents’ welfare is not foremost in those commissioners’ minds.  

The Utah Legislature made matters worse by giving the fossil-fuel biased Community Impact Fund Board control of the $53 million, which was then “laundered” to skirt federal guidelines. The CIB typically awards grants and loans funded by mineral lease extraction royalties for mining on federal lands in Utah. That money is intended to mitigate the community impacts of using those lands for mining. Road repair, water and sewer systems, fire stations, infrastructure upgrades, schools and community centers are the kinds of projects the CIB is supposed to fund with Mineral Lease Act revenue. 

But as state auditors reported earlier this year, the CIB privileges projects that strengthen the fossil fuel industry, not community development. And to make it easier for the CIB to funnel $53 million to California, the Legislature created a special “throughput” fund filled with non-MLA money.  All this undermines the 2020 Utah Roadmap recommendation that state legislators provide economic transition assistance to rural communities stuck in the fossil fuel rut. Leaving no doubt as to their loyalties, lawmakers proceeded to nix a resolution, “Supporting the Utah Roadmap for Positive Solutions and Leadership on Climate and Air Quality.”

Even the proposed Utah Inland Port system has coal underpinnings, with the first “satellite port” expected to be approved for a coal loading station at Salina, in Sevier County. One member of the Utah Inland Port Authority board also has a seat on the CIB and serves as a commissioner for Sevier County, where Utah’s leading coal company has its largest mine.

So, will coal and other fossil fuel magnates continue to stifle economic development in rural Utah?  The bigger questions are, “Who’s in charge of Utah’s future?” and “Who cares enough to challenge the currently entrenched power brokers?” Before the CIB is allowed to squander $53 million on an Oakland coal port gamble, rural Utahns in particular should remember that community economic growth won’t happen, or will be funded by increased local taxes, if development money flows out of state. It’s a matter of priorities — the coal team’s, or yours.

Stanley Holmes is outreach coordinator for the all-volunteer Utah Citizens Advocating Renewable Energy (UCARE).