1 of 22
Ravell Call, Deseret News
Hydrologist Erik Petersen, left, and Kirk Nicholes, environmental specialist for Alton Coal Development, walk through a field as they measure depths of water in wells in Alton, Kane County, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — Coal production in Utah is down 25 percent from where it was a decade ago, and coal-fired electrical generation has also fallen in the state, decreasing 22 percent from 2005.

With such pessimistic numbers, is there room for optimism over coal mining's future in the state, and the rural communities that have hitched their economies to the haul trucks, rail cars and power plants? And with concerns over health and the environment, should there be?

Industry and those community leaders say yes.

"Things are tough now, but there are good things that are coming," said Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter.

Carbon County is among four rural Utah counties wanting to invest $53 million in a seaside shipping terminal in Oakland, California to get Utah coal, potash, soda ash and hay to foreign markets.

Potter said the mineral lease money to be used in support of the terminal was granted to the counties from the Community Impact Board via a low-interest loan.

"It is a great thing for the state and a great thing for these energy-producing counties," Potter said. "I, for one, would not be willing to risk this mineral lease money for a project that will not work."

Foreign destinations for Utah coal are nothing new. Utah was exporting coal to the Pacific Rim in the 1970s, and state exports were robust in the mid- to late 1990s.

Asia, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, consumes more than six times as much coal as the United States and represents 70 percent of global consumption.

By 2035, global coal consumption is projected to increase by about 40 percent, with some areas of Asia reaching as high as 58 percent, the coalition said, relying on the Energy Information Administration's numbers from a recent analysis.

Laura Nelson, executive director of the Governor's Office of Energy Development, believes Utah can tap into that demand, especially with its unique coal qualities.

"Because of social pressures and policy pressures, which are driving up the costs of coal generation, we do expect there is going to be a decline. But that does not have to impact our coal mining industry per se," she said. "We still have high quality coal with high Btu (heat), low water and low sulfur, and we know the rest of the world is going to continue to use coal, especially developing countries who want to improve their quality of life."

The critics

Fervent coal critics like the Sierra Club are waging a fierce campaign to derail the coal shipments to Oakland, and ultimately overseas, citing climate change impacts and severe health consequences for recipient nations.

"With coal, it really is about climate change," said Lindsay Beebe, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign organizer in Utah. "In Utah we are already seeing the effects of climate change pretty harshly with wildfires and in terms of our reduced snowpack, which affects our water security. We also know that coal-fired power plants contribute to asthma and premature deaths, especially in low-income communities and communities of color."

But Mark Compton, president of the Utah Mining Association, said it is a short-sighted and self-serving view to deny developing countries a chance to improve their circumstances.

"There are millions and millions of people around the world who have little or no access to energy and they all want the lifestyle we have in the United States," he said. "Reality is going to dictate that because of energy demand, we are going to be burning more coal in the future, not less."

Potter said he is optimistic that Utah will be doing business at the Oakland shipping port in 2017 and that the coal not needed in Utah will help meet global demands.

"Utah coal is highly sought out in the international market," he said. "Statistically, for every one ton that goes out, it replaces two tons of coal that have a higher pollution value in the world."

There are other activities that signal the industry's willingness to bank on Utah's coal future.

Despite the closure of one Utah coal-fired power plant and the Intermountain Power Project's plans to stop shipping power to California derived from Utah coal, multiple mining companies are seeking significant expansions.

One such expansion, on the table since 1998, came through this summer from the Bureau of Land Management for the Flat Canyon coal tract, which is adjacent to the Skyline Mine.

The federal agency agreed to a lease sale of 42 million tons of recoverable coal, extending the life of the mine for another 10 years and providing enough power for 800,000 households, or 2 million people. It also helps keep intact 327 direct mining jobs and supports another 1,100 ancillary jobs, according to the BLM.

Another 132 million tons of coal are on the table through pending expansions under consideration by the agency, and 8 million tons of recoverable coal are up for review by state regulatory authorities at Alton's Coal Hollow Mine.

Money for schools

The School Institutional Trust Lands Administration in Utah also has exploratory agreements in place with coal operators for potential development of additional reserves.

"SITLA is very much in the coal mining game," said Tom Faddies, the assistant director over mining. SITLA earned $3 million to put into a trust for the benefit of schoolchildren on coal resources last year, and expects that number to grow over the next couple of years.

"Given the resource base of coal in Utah and the possibilities of development and utilization of improved technology, it is likely coal will continue to provide energy to Utah for some decades," he said. "All sources of electrical energy have their unique problems to overcome."

At Alton Coal Development's operation in Kane County, the company wants to mine 2 million tons of coal per year for about 25 years.

Bob Nead, one of the owners, said there's enough coal in the area to go far beyond that.

"I could mine here for a hundred years," noting the 9 billion tons of recoverable coal estimated to be in place by the Utah Geological Survey. "It could go on for a thousand years."

Kane County Commissioner Jim Matson said the Alton coal mine expansion is critical for his area, which has the highest average age of any county in the state and is composed of 90 percent federal lands.

"The royalty payments would generate a significant amount of money for the county," he said. "It's a billion-dollar deal, in aggregate."

But the pressure on coal utilization and coal mining is intense.

U.S. coal fired-power plants are responsible for about a third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even as emissions from those plants have dropped to their lowest levels in 27 years.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity argues the technology is there to bring emissions down even further. Against that backdrop, the coalition asserts coal as an energy source should not be abandoned, but new investments from the U.S. Department of Energy and other government sources should be made to keep it part of the energy mix.

John Baza heads up the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining — enforcing regulations on coal mines in Utah to make sure they act in a environmentally responsible way.

He sees a hub of activity dominating the coal mining industry's effort to stay afloat in Utah, even as the conflicts mount from tumultuous regulatory changes and societal pressures being brought to power plants.

"I think what we are seeing is that coal is very much alive in Utah," he said, "but there are a lot of technical and policy issues that need to be addressed."

Environmental costs

The Sierra Club commissioned a study that says it will cost more than $1 billion for Rocky Mountain Power to bring its power plants into compliance with the highest air quality standards. It notes that the state's national parks are in danger from power plant pollution because it spoils the views tourists love and Utah-based coal critics say it is a losing battle to hang onto coal.

"Coal stock prices are plummeting," said Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah, a clean air advocacy organization. "Coal companies are going bankrupt. Hundreds of coal-fired power plants are shutting down. Utah officials need to start paying attention to global economic realities and stop investing precious state dollars and resources on the future of coal mining and exports and invest more in the clean energy future blowing up all around us."

Potter sniffs at the pollution reference, and invites any Wasatch Front resident to come down to his neighborhood — which hosts the utility company's two workhorse power plants in the state — during a Wasatch Front wintertime inversion and 'see' the clear skies unencumbered by particulate pollution.

Jon Cox, spokesman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, said the state will push back against any early retirement of Utah's coal-fired power plants, giving added life to the industry.

"While no new coal-fired power plants have been built in Utah in the last quarter century and there are no plans to build one in the near future, it is helpful to remember that Utah’s coal-fired power plants are among the most efficient in the nation, and the governor is committed to avoiding costly premature retirements of these valuable assets," he said.

There is statistical information that suggests all coal-fired power plants are not doomed.

The Energy Information Administration said the Clean Power Plan released by the EPA this summer targeting existing emissions will result in less coal-fired electricity generation, but that does not complete the story.

A summer analysis by the research arm of the U.S. Department of Energy says there will be more coal generation from 2024 through 2040 because of increasing demand for electricity and a combination of rising natural gas prices and more renewable energy coming online.

Those factors will drive more utilization of the remaining coal-fired power plants, which could include some in Utah's stable.

Nelson said there may not be more coal being produced, but it could be the state goes forward maintaining the status quo, while pursuing renewables as the market dictates.

"The best way to ensure reliability, resiliency and affordability is to allow a diverse portfolio, where we are not pitting one resource against another resource because there is not a silver bullet, not a perfect resource," she said.

"Our electric rates are in the lower quarter for this country as a whole. That affordability improves the lives of customers and also drives economic development. Resource diversity is good."

A July analysis from the Energy Information Administration shows the average retail price per kilowatt-hour of electricity in Utah is 7.84 cents, compared to California's at 13.50 cents per hour or Connecticut's at 15.50 cents an hour.

"There seems to be an effort to completely eliminate coal from the mix, and I think that is short-sighted and quite dangerous," Compton said. "Coal not only drives the economies of those rural communities, but keeps our rates low and improves our quality of life on the Wasatch Front and in this state."

Twitter: amyjoi16