This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah is well-positioned to begin a conversation about transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, but the state is standing in the way, activists said before the start of the Utah Energy Development Summit this week.
Environmentalists gathered Tuesday at a HEAL Utah demonstration before the opening session of the conference, which they complained catered to fossil-fuel interests and had only token representatives from the clean-energy industry.
Conspicuously absent from this year's agenda, they said, was any discussion of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which calls for states to limit emissions from power plants and cut carbon emissions about 30 percent by 2030.
Though it wasn't listed on the event's agenda, the Clean Power Plan did come up in a Wednesday session, where panelists identified it as one of the most impactful environmental regulations passed in the past year.
The plan's fate is uncertain as the Supreme Court weighs a lawsuit brought by more than two dozen states, including Utah.
"But if it is upheld, it will have a huge impact on how our country looks at regulating climate change and the powers of the EPA," said Amanda Smith, former director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, during an afternoon panel on federal regulations.
Other panel topics included technologies to improve air quality and the environmental and economic impacts of regional grid integration. And energy production's current "transitional" period was a predominant point of conversation throughout the summit.
Smith, an attorney who now specializes in environmental compliance at Holland & Hart LLP, wouldn't predict how the Clean Power Plan will fare in court.
Legal uncertainty was the main issue Gov. Gary Herbert cited when he suspended the development of Utah's plan for implementing the federal rule in February, when the U.S. Supreme Court placed a stay on the Clean Power Plan pending the lawsuit's resolution.
"It is important to utilize limited state resources efficiently, and it does not make sense to dedicate significant staff time or taxpayer dollars to comply with a rule that may not survive judicial scrutiny," Herbert said in a February statement. "The state remains committed to an energy future that is affordable, reliable and cleaner."
Though Utah signed onto the suit last fall, the state's Department of Environmental Quality had, prior to the governor's decision, intended to proceed with planning.
Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah, said he could see no reason why that process should not have continued, given that state regulators already had an effective strategy for gathering public and stakeholder input.
Various environmental organizations continue to meet independently to discuss what Utah's Clean Power Plan might look like, and Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Paul Murphy has said the utility also continues to plan for how it will comply with the federal regulation.
But in the absence of state-led discussions involving diverse stakeholders, Pacenza said, he worries Utah could be forced to make hasty decisions regarding how to implement the federal rule, should it be upheld.
Joe Andrade, a retired University of Utah engineering professor who now advocates for a sustainable economy, said at HEAL's Tuesday demonstration that the governor's decision and the arrogance of other state leaders could lead to economic collapse.
"We have a leadership that is evil," he said. "It is evil for our leadership to deny the obvious."
Utah's rural communities are particularly at risk, he said, if the state does not help them find a way to transition from the dying fossil fuel industry to an economy based on renewable resources. But instead of addressing the problem, he said, state leaders are looking for someone to blame.
"They're looking for witches, they're looking for scapegoats, they're looking for excuses," Andrade said. "But the fossil fuel economy is going to collapse, and no scapegoat is going to solve that."