Under President-elect Joe Biden, will Utah’s air get cleaner, its public lands stay more pristine and its waterways be filled with fewer contaminants?
It could happen, but it won’t evolve overnight and could come with significant costs — and opportunities — for Utah due to Biden’s climate agenda that is not only ambitious, but expensive with far-reaching impacts. Will it bring new jobs? Will it cost Utah jobs?
Will it spur technological advancements to emphasize an embrace of clean energy or will it cost more than a trillion dollars without tangible benefits that accrue to Utah?
What happens in the next four years will provide the answers.
Biden, for example, campaigned for the nation’s highest office with the promise to end any new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands — on day one.
For a state like Utah, which has more than half of its oil and gas wells capable of production on federal land, such a measure would eventually lead to lower production and drive companies to states with more private or state land on which to drill.
“I definitely feel that part of trying to sustain effective production of energy is to replace declines in existing production,” said John Baza, director of Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
Gordon Larsen, Gov. Spencer Cox’s senior adviser for federal affairs, said the move would punish states with huge tracts of federal land.
“It would be terribly unfair to place the burden of energy reductions on fragile Western communities just because they happen to be near federal lands,” he said.
Cox said those communities need to be protected.
“I am very concerned, deeply concerned. So many of our rural areas are so heavily dependent on extraction industries and fossil fuels, and they are not going to go away very quickly.”
Utah’s new governor said he met with the transition team at the U.S. Department of Interior in December and implored them to consider the impacts of whatever action they take, advising them this way:
“Too often when you are making these decisions it is happening in a vacuum and you forget that there are real people who are being impacted. I would encourage you to really understand the people and the economies that are being hurt when these decisions are made.”
Biden may be able to end any new production on federal lands for oil and gas, but he has no authority over Native American oil or gas production. In Utah, tribes have 2,506 wells capable of production, there are another 2,207 wells on state land and 1,565 wells on private land.
The incoming president, however, has vowed to enact aggressive new methane pollution limits for existing production, but it remains to be seen what those limits will be and what kind of impact they will have — both on harmful emissions and the industry’s bottom line.
Costs to Utah
A study by the Wyoming Energy Authority predicts an outright ban on oil and gas production on federal lands will cost Utah $1.4 billion over the first four years of a Biden administration — a claim industry critics say is overblown.
But Baza does point out that oil and natural gas are used for more than just fueling the transportation sector. Thousands of products, including cosmetics, clothing, furniture, children’s toys and even the plexiglass so standard in an era of a global pandemic get their start with oil. Those products also include solar panels, heart valves, smartphones and football helmets.
“A lot of those things that are synthetically made come from petroleum-based products,” Baza said.
Critics who lay the blame for a warming climate on carbon emissions say Biden has to start somewhere and the economy of Utah and other states high in federal oil and gas production will ultimately have to embrace a “clean energy economy.”
Josh Craft, Utah Clean Energy’s legislative and corporate relations manager, said the state is well positioned to tap into Biden’s goals.
“We think Utah is a great position to take advantage of this agenda,” he said. “Biden has spoken about investing $1.7 trillion in clean energy and sets a pretty ambitious agenda for emission reductions, technology and climate.”
The sun, the wind and the earth
Baza agrees that what will help Utah is its diversity of resources — it’s among the best in the country for its solar resource, has active wind corridors for turbines and is third in the country for its geothermal production.
The spending bill Congress passed in December 2020 directs the U.S. Department of Interior to pursue 25 gigawatts of new wind, solar and geothermal energy on public lands within four years.
“I think the good thing for Utah is that we have a healthy breadbasket of diverse energy resources to draw on — geothermal, a fair amount of wind development and solar that has really caught on,” Baza said.
Biden also wants to electrify a portion of the transportation sector by ensuring, according to his campaign, that 100% of new sales of light- and medium-duty vehicles are electric. He wants to build on the infrastructure that is in place by deploying a half-million new electric vehicle charging outlets for the public.
If Biden gets what he wants, the electric vehicle momentum will amplify the efforts of former Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah Legislature and Rocky Mountain Power to make electric vehicle charging outlets more accessible, including an ambitious seven-state effort to electrify more than 42,000 miles of regional interstate and state highway networks.
The future of the grid
Biden also wants to end carbon-based electrical generation by 2035, something clean energy advocates say utility companies are already pursuing.
“We have seen that the majority of new capacity that these utilities are seeking in the West is renewable energy more often paired with battery storage,” Craft said.
As an example, PacifiCorp put out its biggest request for renewable energy projects in the history of the utility just last year.
The first stage of the process resulted in an initial shortlist of approximately 3,000 megawatts of wind, 2,500 megawatts of solar with 1,300 megawatts of co-located battery storage, and 200 megawatts of standalone storage projects that could be in service as early as 2024.
The outcome, according to PacifiCorp, is anticipated to more than double the company’s renewable energy expansion with enough renewable energy to serve 1.1 million homes across its 10-state grid.
The question of coal
With Biden’s goal of ending carbon emissions, it’s unclear what happens to coal mining, which in Utah last year produced 14.3 million tons, some of it shipped to Asia.
The University of Utah is leading a multipartner research team to find cost-effective and carbon-friendly ways to convert coal into a material that can be spun into high-value carbon-based products.
Carbon fibers, in particular, are highly prized because of their unique properties, including being lightweight, their strength and thermal conductivity.
The challenge is to develop the technology to transform the carbon from coal in a way that is economically and environmentally viable.
“We can definitely do it, but it has to be competitive,” said Eric Eddings, a U. professor of chemical engineering who leads a research team that is partnering in a new project with the University of Wyoming and Marshall University in West Virginia.
“If you can have multiple products coming out of coal — rather than just burning it — that list continues to grow as more and more research goes on.”
With Biden’s emphasis on transforming the federal fleet to all electric, Eddings said batteries require carbon anodes, as an example.
“We need to get that from somewhere, and coal is an excellent source,” he said.
The new stage of research is looking at the characteristics for coal depending on which seam it is taken from.
“It does benefit a large cross section of communities in the United States that do rely on coal mining in their economies. If we can find a new use for coal, that is significant,” Eddings said.
Last year’s spending bill also included a directive to harvest rare earth elements from coal and other sources, and so even if coal-fired power plant closures ramp up under Biden, technology indicates there’s a good case to be made for the continued mining of coal for other applications.
The desire to go nuclear
Biden’s clean power agenda also gives a nod to continued federal investment in next generation nuclear technology. Last year’s spending package directed $115 million for small modular reactor development. One of those plants is slated to be located at the Idaho National Laboratory, which will be the home of the Carbon Free Power Project pursued by a Utah-based coalition of independent power producers.
On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to cut the construction costs of new nuclear reactors by half of what traditional nuclear power plants command.
As part of that same nuclear power agenda, the spending package set up a $75 million uranium reserve that will benefit Utah and other states where there are deposits of the heavy metal that is used to fuel reactors.
Utah is also home to the only uranium processing mill in the United States and accounted for 24% of the nation’s production from 2012 to 2018. The White Mesa Mill, owned by Energy Fuels, also processes vanadium, which is primarily used in steel or other high-strength alloys, said company spokesman Curtis Moore.
Vanadium is also seeing increased interest for its use in grid-scale battery storage — which speaks to Biden’s clean energy agenda.
Land conservation and the 30 by 30 goal
How effective Biden may be at implementing his sweeping climate goals and reducing carbon emissions depends heavily on getting his Cabinet-level picks through the Senate.
Some political observers in Utah say it may have been a heavy lift to get Deb Haaland, a Democratic representative from New Mexico, into the seat as Interior secretary. But now it looks like her appointment as the first Native American to a Cabinet will play out in the Senate with Democrats in control after a runoff election in Georgia on Tuesday.
Haaland introduced a House resolution to protect 30% of the nation’s public lands and public waterways by 2030 and also sponsored a bill to restore the Bears Ears National Monument to the boundaries designated under the Obama administration.
Native American tribes and environmental groups have sued the Trump administration for his reduction of the Bears Ears boundaries in 2017, litigation which is pending in federal court.
Biden has adopted Haaland’s 30 by 30 goal as part of his campaign promises and because the largest federal tracts of land are in the West, it’s likely those conservation goals will target places like Utah.
“One of the things we saw generally when it comes to public lands is that people in Utah tended to be much happier with Trump. They wanted someone responsive on the issue of Bears Ears and he did that and did it dramatically by shrinking it,” said Matthew Burbank an American politics professor at the University of Utah.
“The question is still hanging out there with what happens with Bears Ears and the size of the monument.”
Burbank predicted tension between rural areas like those in Utah and the Biden administration will become a way of life.
“County commissioners in rural areas probably had better access to the federal government than they ever have had because of President Trump.”
While Trump pushed an energy dominant agenda, Biden clearly takes global warming more seriously, Burbank added.
“Any efforts to have a strong extractive energy policy will be seen through the light of the concern over global warming.”
Trump, with his elimination of federal regulations, had a philosophy of the federal government getting out of the way of states — something Burbank said people won’t see with a Biden Interior department.
“I don’t think the Biden administration, or quite frankly any administration, will be that welcoming to that point of view when it comes to rural, extractive industries,” he said. “I absolutely anticipate that will change.”
In pursuit of cleaner air and water
The goals of moving to a zero-emissions economy, reducing the carbon footprint of U.S. building stock by 50% by 2035 and transforming to an all-electrified passenger and medium duty vehicles — if successful — will have an impact on Utah’s problem with fine particulate pollution.
That much is a given.
But observers say improving Utah’s air quality profile is not an accomplishment that Biden can just make happen.
“Federal policy is important, but it does not dictate outcomes at the city or state level,” Burbank said. “Air quality has been a concern for a long time, for both Democrats and Republicans, yet it is a very difficult issue to deal with because of the economic effects, the nature of the geography and the nature of where people live.”
The Utah Division of Air Quality has emphasized that the move by local refineries to produce the cleaner burning Tier 3 gasoline — and the turnover in the fleet of vehicles that run cleaner — will have the single-biggest impact on reducing fine particulate pollution that haunts Utah skies in the winter.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in fact, identified the Wasatch Front as the top place in the country that could benefit from Tier 3 fuels adoption.
Biden’s ascension to the presidency will also not evaporate one of Utah’s most pressing problems when it comes to water quality — toxic algal blooms.
The incoming president has said he wants to review the “regulatory roadblocks” that prevent capturing agricultural runoff — one source of nutrient pollution behind the blooms — but certainly not the only source.
Utah has developed its own nutrient criteria for headwaters and a proposed rule was released last year by the EPA dealing with nutrient pollution. It has yet to be finalized for a major environmental problem affecting all 50 states.
It’s expected that the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS, will be revisited by Biden because Trump narrowly defined its scope. Utah and nine other states successfully sued to block implementation of the Obama-era rule saying it went beyond the reach of the Clean Water Act with its oversight of ephemeral, or intermittent waterways.
A restoration of the original rule would likely stoke another legal battle and lead to continued uncertainty over the breadth of EPA’s authority.