Playing dirty with coal.
—by John deJong
You can forgive Utah’s citizens if we feel like we’ve been dry-gulched by the Coal Brothers and their hired guns. As Brian Maffly revealed last month in the Salt Lake Tribune (March 28, 2016) the people who finagled a $53 million loan from Utah’s Community Impact Board for a minority investment in a deep water coal terminal in Oakland, California have been misrepresenting the project to the citizens and elected officials of Utah and Oakland.
The Community Impact Board (CIB) was established to disburse mineral royalties from federal lands in Utah. It was originally dedicated to mitigating the effects of mineral extraction and targeted almost any governmental institution in the state. Recent highway projects like the Utah County I-15 upgrade and the Mountain View corridor have been funded in part by the CIB.
The law was changed this last legislative session (S.B. 246) to include privately owned “throughput infrastructure projects… located within, partially within or outside the state” such as “a bulk commodity ocean terminal” as possible beneficiaries of the royalties.
Governor Herbert et al. would have us believe that this is just a loan. A very safe loan. We should expect the money to be repaid. But the most likely scenario is that the venture will struggle for years, barely making the interest payments and then, as the deep water basin silts up, go bankrupt, leaving Utah’s Community Impact Board holding a bunch of yellowing doilies with fancy printing and possibly, if things go our way, the title to a rusting monument to the passing of the coal age, with a great view of Alcatraz and the Pacific.
If, as documents cited in Maffly’s story suggest, this deal doesn’t go down, citizens of Utah should be thankful for such an explicit example of the power of campaign contributions, as well as a convincing case for stricter conflict-of-interest laws. For Bowie Resource Partners, owner of three Central Utah coal mines, gave Governor Herbert $14,000 in 2014 and 2015. They distributed a similar amount among the leadership in the legislature who passed the bill. Of course, this did not influence their judgment.
When asked about Bowie Resources’ contribution to his campaign, Herbert claimed he didn’t even know that they had contributed. I’ll bet that when Bowie’s lobbyists call Herbert’s office, an aide will look up their contribution and determine whether Herbert needs to take the call.
But Bowie Resources doesn’t really need to talk to Herbert. He needs no orders from headquarters to do what they want.
An argument should be made for much stricter conflict-of-interest standards for executive offices. Any ethical breach regarding conflict of interest on the part of a legislator will be corrected by other representatives, assuming no one has enough money to buy the ears of all of our representatives and then, without getting caught, lie to each and every one of them. A politician in an executive position has only his own prejudices, obligations and phobias to guide his judgment.
On another level, this isn’t about coal (Bowie Resources is looking to diversify by buying trona mines in Wyoming) or jobs (only about 1,500 in 2013) or making a “profitable” investment. It’s about denial of global warming and ending the burning of fossil fuels—the “war on coal.”
No one wants to be the last person killed on the losing side of a war. No one wants to be the last investor in a sinking industry. But that is exactly who Governor Herbert and Bowie Resources are lining up the citizens of Utah to be.
In the best possible case (not very probable, but possible) it would take decades for this loan to be repaid. The coal industry won’t last that long. Utah would be far better off spending this money for true mitigation, not incineration. We can’t let our elected officials burn $53 million. That money would do a lot for the irrigation districts in Utah’s coal belt, or provide solar electric installations for all of those towns.
John deJong is associate editor of CATALYST