Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Governor Herbert to Announce 10 Year Energy Initiative

photo courtesy of the DEWEYSQUAREGROUP


Utah Governor Gary Herbert's office recently issued some graphic heraldry describing the place and time of his announcement of "Utah's 10-Year Strategic Energy Plan." The Governor's "Energy Initiatives and Imperatives" will be "unveiled" this Friday at the University of Utah, attended by the Governor's supporters, Utah's policymakers and its special interests alike. Most observe Herbert's plan as a tightly-knit collaboration with his state's legislature including input only from the GOP and the special interests which funded his election last November. Some thought that the backdrop and locale for the announcement lent more credibility to the orchestrations than should be deserved since the design of the initiative had been accomplished in private caucuses and behind closed doors.

During the 45-day legislative calendar earlier this year, Utah lawmakers authorized a newly-formed "Department of Energy Development," presently led by Utah Department of Environmental Quality director, Amanda Smith. Prior to these expanded duties which some see as temporary, Ms. Smith, a Jon Huntsman, Jr. appointee, has overseen the efforts of a sizable staff including Utah's Department of Air Quality. Herbert critics say the efforts of Smith's department have always been hampered by a lack of sufficient funding as well as conflicts inherent in an agency charged with regulating air quality while permitting refinery operations and power plant construction. Smith admitted to funding problems at the conclusion of a 2010 public hearing held in Cedar City. It is widely believed that Friday's announcement could also include the appointment of a new chief of energy development in Utah.

Members of the state Senate and its House of Representatives were quick to point out in session that Forbes magazine had recently acknowledged the Beehive State as having the highest economic recovery scores in the nation. Others were just as fast to emphasize that the magazine simultaneously awarded Utah a designation as the most toxic state to do business, citing urban air quality among the poorest in the nation and a recent record of toxic spills evidenced near the capitol city and elsewhere.

Still stinging from the December announcement of Ken Salazar's Secretarial Order 3310 and the authority of the Obama administration that its constituents had rejected at the polls in 2008, the state's legislative and executive branches have maneuvered to allow for Utah's preemption of federal control over public lands, most of which are administered by Interior's Bureau of Land Management. In Salazar's order, the Interior Department described its intent to list and potentially designate as "wild lands" some areas in the western United States but also acknowledged the need for jobs and revenues available from the nation's public lands. Utah's governor and lawmakers certainly weren't buying that, recalling the Clinton administration's designation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument many years before when significant mineral reserves were placed out of reach. Some decried the recent Secretarial Order as robbery from the state's schoolchildren (See related story).

In its 2011 session, the Utah legislature has woven what some perceive as their best efforts to preempt federal authority through a variety of bills asserting their "state's rights." While lawmakers were busy getting these bills advanced in Utah, Herbert appeared before a newly-elected and friendly congress to assail federal dominion and claim the same "sovereignty" that is the hallmark of ultra-conservatives nationwide. To that end, the initiative to be announced on Friday may be less his own, and more the evidence of public policy machinations of a state dominated by its rabidly conservative GOP.

Sources with an intimate understanding of the governor's initiative indicate that it will attempt to appease those supporting the development of alternative energy but will mostly hand the reins over to traditional energy producers for the development of mineral resources and natural gas within Utah. What remains to be seen is the potential for "Utah's 10-Year Strategic Energy Plan" to produce litigation on local and national levels, all of which could tie up permitting for as many years to come.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"5% of SQUAT!"

by Michael Orton
Licensed through ImageProviders


On the Utah Senate floor just before that body adjourned for lunch, Senator Stephen Urquhart (R-29, Washington County) rose in support of Senator Ralph Okerland (R-24 central Utah), House Representative Mike Noel (R-73, Kane County) and their SB221. Urquhart passionately denounced the federal government and its recent decision to "re-inventory" public lands throughout the western U.S. using Secretarial Order 3310. Without much reference or amplification, Senator Urquhart boldly asserted that the constitution did not give Utah acreage to the federal government for administration, because the federal government "breeched its [transfer] agreement in 1976." At critical issue here, and likely the reason why the second substitute bill was fast-tracked on suspension of the rules (28Y, 0N), is the participation of resource revenue sharing with the state's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, SITLA. Complete bi-partisanship on this matter is deeply rooted in the democratic minority's overwhelming support of the state's school system and its funding in an era of austerity.

In the widely held anticipation of federal designation of Utah's wild lands as wilderness, "the federal government has stolen what is rightfully ours," declared Utah Sen. Urquhart, "and if they continue, we will receive five percent of SQUAT." He went on to vigorously complain that "these lands are not the little playthings of theirs. They are STEALING from [Utah's] public education system." Though the secretarial order sets up a public process, the fear that the Department of the Interior will designate as "wild lands" some of Utah's 20 million BLM acres has fueled empassioned debate and significant work on SB221. The bill attempts to establish and codify bottom-up management plan methodology through the cooperation of counties and state agencies like the Utah Department of Natural Resources and now the newly-formed Utah Department of Energy Development.

A quick look at program funding reports from Utah's School Land Trust indicates that through the time of the secretarial order issued by Interior Secretary and Colorado native Ken Salazar, Utah schools had enjoyed increased revenues from this source with trending established before the national election in 2008. Even past that time, schools in Utah received considerably more funds than in earlier years. The conservationists say this lends some credence to the charge that energy company profits fueled a "wholesale auction of extraction leases on public lands" and attempts to promote coal-fired power plant applications in the final months of the Bush administration.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Utah's Concurrent Resolution Opposing Salazar's "Reinventory"

by Michael Orton
this report licensed via Creative Commons


Late this afternoon, Rep. Mike Noel (R-Kanab) will introduce a concurrent resolution to the House standing committee on natural resources, agriculture and the environment. This "message to Washington" is expected to receive swift approval and opposes Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's "re-inventory" of acreage which may eventually designate some within the state of Utah as "wild lands." Such a re-inventory classification could affect the commercial or recreational uses normally associated with vacant BLM land, which includes 20 million acres in the Beehive State where much of that acreage is already under use plans which receive public scrutiny. Supporters of the resolution say that a significant amount is still undesignated as to use that might involve mineral and energy-related resources. Utah's Governor Gary Herbert was scheduled to testify to congress today on this very contentious issue. (See related story)

Mike Noel, right, with executive from Reagan Outdoor Advertising
in committee testimony on unrelated bill   Photo: Michael Orton

Utah legislators and extraction industries representatives term the re-inventory a "land grab" on the part of the federal government but many of Utah's continuous residents own properties originally homesteaded during the Cleveland administration in the latter part of the 19th century. Currently, lawmakers are reacting as strongly as did the conservation and environmental supporters during the end of the Bush administration when several hundred of Utah's public lands acres were put up for auction in oil and gas leases. That action led to the arrest and trial of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher which began yesterday in federal court. DeChristopher is accused of fraudulently bidding on leases he had no intention of buying, primarily doing so as a disruption tactic which he has termed an act of "civil disobedience."

The resolution is expected to leave committee with a favorable recommendation later this afternoon. Text of the resolution here.

Video of the discussion is available via ImageProviders