photo courtesy of the DEWEYSQUAREGROUP
SALT LAKE CITY --
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.