Caring About Coal

One might as well cuss as say "coal" in climate change circles. 

And despite the fact that the resource is the cheapest and most abundant fuel in the world (and plentiful in Utah), the U.S. is expected to retire about 54 gigawatts of coal-fired power generating capacity by 2016. That's not good news in Carbon and Emery Counties, where coal mining is a major economic driver.

As the country shifts away from coal and other fossil fuels, Utah's coal country is losing jobs. In the last several years Carbon County has lost more than 800 jobs and is set to lose another 65 direct and about 200 indirect jobs next April when the coal-fired power plant in Helper is retired, says Tami Ursenbach, Carbon County economic development director.

According to the Utah Office of Energy Development, there are approximately 2,000 direct jobs in Utah's coal production industry. Meanwhile, Utah's oil and natural gas industries account for approximately 10,000 direct jobs.

In an education-centered initiative, some 6,000 people recently gathered in Carbon County for a Coal and Fossil Fuel Rally. The participants, some from as far away as Arizona, California and Colorado, focused on fossil fuel education, awareness and the initiatives that can help keep fossil fuels viable. The rally was put on by the South East Utah Energy Producers Association, Friends of Coal and Carbon, Emery, Duchesne and Uintah Counties.

Despite the strong attendance from miners, families and community people, Ursenbach says the speakers, including energy expert Alex Epstein, weren't just preaching to the choir.

"People from across the state don't always understand the importance of fossil fuels. Through the rally we educated our county and the state about the importance of these abundant fuels," she continues. "If we can't use coal to fire our power plants it will affect the whole state financially. Our electric bills will go up, the cost of goods and services will go up and economic development will be more difficult because we won't have the inexpensive utilities that we now enjoy."

Thanks to the support the rally received, organizers plan to make it an annual event. Ursenbach says similar rallies have taken place across the country and the events are making an impact. Last June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put out its Clean Power Plan, which would require existing power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The comment period was supposed to end in September, however, she says the period has since been extended to December 1.

"We believe the extended comment period is due to the rallies and the awareness we are receiving from the rallies," she adds. "We know what we are doing is making a difference. We know we are being heard. It is not just in Utah. It is in all of the states."

Further, Ursenbach points to the online publication Power Engineering, which says the EPA estimates its new plan would force power producers to close more than 60 percent of the nation's coal-fired generation.

"If the EPA's Clean Power Plan is put into effect, utility costs will rise, jobs will be lost and our GDP will decrease," she says. "The Coal Utilization Research Council predicts that a 10 percent increase in electricity costs will lead to a loss of as many as 1.5 million jobs across the country."

With enough fossil fuel energy in Utah to last for centuries, Ursenbach says educating the population is vital. Meanwhile the county is having conversations with companies developing "clean coal" opportunities and trying to recruit them to locate here. Further, in the face of regulatory uncertainties, Utah's energy producing counties are trying to diversify to boost their economies. Carbon County has developed a seven-mile industrial corridor that is largely shovel-ready and other industrial parks that are "just waiting for commercial interest," she continues.

"We have a lot of infrastructure already in place in the county, and a lot of open land. We are only an hour away from the Wasatch Front and would love to share our infrastructure with businesses looking to expand," she explains. Carbon County has also developed into a transportation hub for trucks coming through central and eastern Utah from New Mexico and southern Colorado on Highway 6.

The county is also a hub for energy trucks bringing fossil fuels to rail lines in the county. To help reduce emissions and the number of trucks on the road in Uintah and Duchesne Counties, she says a pipeline is on the drawing board that would carry oil and natural gas from the energy fields to Carbon County. Such a pipeline, she notes, would enhance delivery of oil and natural gas to market along the Wasatch Front, help reduce emissions, shift jobs from trucking to other areas, move product faster and allow energy companies to produce more product.

"Some of these other developments could be huge," Ursenbach concludes, "but they don't eliminate the importance of coal and other fossil fuels to our rural economies."