New proposal for cleaner energy could impact Utah’s coal industry

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SALT LAKE CITY -- In parts of rural Utah, the sight of a coal train used to be a sign the economy was headed in the right direction.

But today, that industry is starting to slow down, as demand for cleaner energy is starting to grow.

On Monday, the Obama administration unveiled a new proposal that would drastically cut carbon emissions from coal power plants across the country.

“Although we limit pollutants like mercury, arsenic, sulfur, currently, there are no limits on carbon pollution form power plants,” said Gina McCarthy, the administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under the plan, the EPA would require the plants to cut carbon pollution by 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030.

While air quality concerns have been at the forefront of public debate in Utah for years, the proposal is raising concern.

“Utah is a coal state. We’ve always been a coal state. Roughly 80 percent of our electricity is generated from coal. So, any rule that is going to clamp down or restrict or limit our access or use of that coal is going to have an impact,” said Cody Stewart, energy advisor to Gov. Gary Herbert.

According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, coal production accounts for 1,831 jobs in the state. New regulations on the industry could mean reductions in the workforce, which Stewart said would devastate the rural areas where the mines are located.

“Carbon and Emery counties and other counties, in some locations that’s the really only high paying job in the area,” Stewart said. “So, if those coal jobs go away, you can’t replace them. There’s really nothing else they can do.”

Lawmakers across Utah and the country responded swiftly and critically to the plan.

“Make no mistake – this proposed cap-and-trade rule will kill jobs, increase energy costs, and make it even more difficult for hardworking families to make ends meet.  So it’s no surprise that the proposal is opposed by Republicans and many Democrats alike,” said U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

However, it is still unclear how the proposed regulation would play out in Utah.

The plan would offer states flexibility in coming under compliance with options, such as reducing emissions through alternative energy electricity systems, or starting and participating in “cap and trade” programs. Plans to close any existing coal plants would not be implemented immediately, but rather, over a period of several years.

“This thing should have been done a long time ago,” said Tim Wagner of the environmental group, Sierra Club.

The president tried and failed to pass a climate change bill during his first term in office. The new proposal is long overdue, according to Wagner.

“The health impacts of burning coal are already substantial, they’re already there,” Wagner said. “So, the more we can get away from burning coal to cleaner sources, the better off we’re all going to be.”

The president is using his executive authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to order the regulation. However, the rule is currently just a draft, and will be subject to public comment and revisions over the next year. It is expected to be implemented in its final form by June of 2015.