Gov. Gary Herbert's energy summit this week was not about promoting job growth or economic development. Not really.
The meeting mostly served to bring Herbert and his single-minded energy advisers and like-minded legislators together with fossil-fuel developers. After all, the state has long welcomed those who want to pursue profits from mining coal, tar sands and oil shale and developing nuclear power.
The discussion was not about how to improve life for Utahns, but about boosting the bottom lines of industries that inevitably will leave Utah economically vulnerable, dirtier and less healthy.
In short, the summit resembled a meeting of an exclusive club that might as well have had a "No renewables allowed" sign tacked on the Salt Palace door. Outside, about 150 Utahns carried signs protesting the short shrift given to renewable energy in Utah and, as a consequence, dirtier air from extracting and burning fossil fuels.
Taking the long view • Herbert has shown an extraordinarily shortsighted view of energy development. He sees little benefit in encouraging development of Utah's abundant renewable energy sources wind, solar, geothermal. He and his energy adviser, Cody Stewart, whose previous career was promoting fossil fuels, believe the "Utah way" is to encourage the boom-and-bust development of oil and natural gas because, right now, those industries are providing jobs.
Seeing the benefits of renewable energy would require taking a longer view, to a future of sustainable jobs and economic development that would be less polluting and less damaging to the natural environment. But Utah's leaders appear blind to just how interconnected are energy, public health and the state's economy.
Hidden costs • Dirty air is costly, both in terms of human suffering and the state's budget. The National Research Council, in a 1980s study for the Environmental Protection Agency titled "Valuing Health Risks, Costs, and Benefits for Environmental Decision Making," reached a startling conclusion:
On average, each ton of particulate matter costs society up to $300,000 in health expenditures, and each ton of sulphur dioxide costs up to $45,000. Mining and refining emit hundreds of tons of pollutants every day.
The Utah Department of Air Quality considers PM 2.5, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide to be "interchangeable" as particulates under current air-permitting rules. The total for all three in Salt Lake County is 39,119 tons per year. Using the conservative figures from the EPA study, when less was known about the health consequences of airborne chemicals, the county's pollution burden costs about $12 billion annually.
Premature deaths • In Utah, more than 1,000 people die prematurely every year from polluted air. Many more are debilitated. But, since these people are nameless and faceless, the hidden costs of burning fossil fuels can be ignored.
Yet, the idea of providing incentives for developing renewable energy is mostly dismissed by Herbert and conservative legislators as capable of providing only "intermittent" power. They tout the technology that makes extractive industries more productive, and at times slightly less damaging. But they talk little about technology that is making renewables more consistently productive.
Creating jobs • Other Western states are not making the same mistake. Utah is dead last among eight Western states in power generated from renewable sources. Colorado, with potential renewable energy resources similar to Utah's, requires utility companies to produce a percentage of power from renewable sources. Even drilling giant Wyoming is far ahead.
Among all energy sources, wind is second only to natural gas in added capacity in recent years. As for jobs, consider that wind represented 32 percent of the electrical-generation capacity added in 2011, with $14 billion invested and 85,000 jobs created. How many of those new jobs are in Utah?
Herbert said Thursday that Utah "can have it all" clean air, outdoor recreation and beautiful public lands, was well as profitable extractive industries, including tar sands and oil shale.
Picking winners and losers • But there is no existing technology to make that possible. Residents of the Uintah Basin, home to a boom in drilling, suffer at times with some of the dirtiest and least healthy air in the country. The Wasatch Front fails to meet federal standards for air quality, and yet Utah leaders do not hesitate to allow expansion of refineries that spew toxic chemicals into the already polluted air every day.
Cleaner energy is an issue on which many Westerners, including Utahns, disagree with the official Utah view that lower power costs, jobs and short-term economic development trump the environment. Polls show 75 percent of Westerners would pay more for power if it came from renewable sources.
Utah leaders say they will not encourage renewable energy development because they "don't want to pick winners and losers." Yet, given the implications of their decisions, they already have done so. The losers? Children and other vulnerable Utahns whose health and quality of life are impaired, along with prospects for clean and sustainable economic development and the jobs it creates.