- Associated Press - Friday, January 15, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - While environmentalists cheered, state government and central Utah county leaders expressed dismay about the Obama administration’s decision to halt new coal leases on federal lands.

The move is expected to have long-term ramifications on already struggling economies in Carbon and Emery counties, which have for many years depended on coal mining and production.

In Carbon County - where several large coal miner statues stand as visible reminders of the importance of coal to the region - the decision is viewed as the latest move in the federal government’s “war on coal,” as county commissioner Jae Potter calls it.

Eight in 10 jobs in the county of 17,000 come from mining and power plants, Potter said. Hundreds of people lost jobs in the county and neighboring Emery County last year when a coal plant and coal mine closed.

“This kind of attack on one industry, particularly in our county, is absolutely devastating,” said Potter. “What made this country great and built free enterprise and industries, they’re to kill that.”



He said the Obama administration is listening only to environmental groups and neglecting the impacts on communities like his that live on coal.

“We know that burning any fossil fuel is an issue, but it is so clean these days,” Potter said.

Utah is among the states most likely to be impacted by the ruling, along with Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. More than 40 percent of U.S. coal production, or about 450 million tons a year, comes from public lands these Western states, bringing in more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

In Utah, 80 percent of the coal reserves are on federal land, according to state figures. And an estimated 76 percent of the electricity in Utah comes from five coal-fired power plants.

Gov. Gary Herbert said through a spokesman that he’s “deeply troubled” by the announcement that will impact a coal production industry that goes back 100 years in Utah.

“This unprecedented shift picks winners and losers, and threatens the future of affordable and reliable energy resources that support our thriving economy,” said Herbert’s spokesman Jon Cox in a statement.

Several members of Utah’s congressional delegation blasted the plan, too, including Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Chris Stewart, both Republicans. “This announcement is absurd,” Stewart said in a statement. “It is liberal fantasyland at its worst and I will fight it every way I can.”

Environmental groups applauded the decision as a move that will help decrease the country’s dependence on contaminating fossil fuels.

“Whether you’re most concerned about climate change or air pollution, it’s overwhelmingly clear that coal is the electricity-making source of the past, not the future,” said Matt Pacenza, executive director of the environmental group Heal Utah.

Pacenza said he recognizes residents in Carbon and Emery counties will be adversely impacted, and said he hopes officials find a way to soften the blow.

At Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest electricity provider, company officials are moving away from coal and toward renewable energy. About 61 percent of power comes from coal now, and the company anticipates that less than half of the power will come from coal in the next decade, said company spokesman Paul Murphy.

Murphy said the company is reviewing the plan to see if it will impact their customers. Beyond that, they didn’t have comment.

In Carbon County, where Potter is a real estate agent in addition to being a county commissioner, the effects of the moratorium on new coal leases is likely to be felt in the coming years, he said.

“If a coal company can’t move forward into another lease area, they have to close,” Potter said. “Then we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs and millions, if not billions, of business investment that has to basically be shuttered.”

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