SALT LAKE CITY — Perhaps the most controversial environmental issue of the 2016 Legislature was the fate of a $53 million investment in a California port for Utah exports like coal, but for proponents it was a matter of pure economics.
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, read a position statement issued by the Governor's Office of Energy Development urging the passage of SB246, citing support for the economic vitality of rural Utah and job creation.
McKell and others say the economic livelihood of natural resource-rich communities depends on the investment in 49 percent access in a to-be built thru port in Oakland, California, where coal, hay, potash and other Utah products can be shipped to foreign markets.
Environmental groups in California and in Utah have battered lawmakers and the state for pursuing the investment, arguing they're sinking money into a dying fossil fuel industry that is a chief cause of a warming climate.
"It's distressing that legislators will throw tens of millions of dollars in public money at a doomed scheme to prop up a failing industry, yet balk at spending any resources at cleaning up our air or otherwise improving public health and the environment," said Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah's executive director.
That type of criticism dogged lawmakers when the bill surfaced late in the session, but supporters were quick to emphasize the investment is not a "gift" to coal mining communities or industry, but that the money will be paid back through a revolving loan fund.
McKell, in debate Thursday night, said the investment of mineral lease revenue is not risky because if other investors don't pony up the remaining $200 million necessary for the terminal — Utah is out nothing because no money will be spent until the funds are raised.
"These counties are willing to partner. They are not asking for a total freebie," added Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield. "The money that would pay for this is money that originated out of these mines. I think it is a worthy investment and something that could be extremely important to rural Utah."
Lawmakers also agreed to a complex payment formula for potential future water projects — including the Lake Powell pipeline and the Bear River development project in northern Utah — that involves shifting transportation money in increasing increments over five years.
Some of the money taken from the transportation fund will also go to education, but the ultimate goal is to establish a "savings" account to pay for future water needs.
The bill, SB80, did away with two transportation earmarks, according to Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and does not commit the state to any particular project. Foes of the measure disagreed.
In other financial matters, lawmakers failed to fulfill the full request for more than $2 million to replacing aging air quality monitors and put in new monitors in Iron County, but they agreed to spend half that and put another $250,000 in air pollution education efforts by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. The budget also called for $100,000 in air quality research, short of the $250,000 that had been requested.
In last-minute negotiating, House Minority Assistant Whip Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, tried to add more money to replace air quality monitors, but his efforts were unsuccessful.
"We struggled to meet our goals to fund air quality," he explained, urging more dollars.
In a budget cycle in which revenue growth estimates fell short of what had been expected, the Utah Legislature had to tiptoe through a minefield of various requests, but came up with $6 million for a new environmental quality technical support lab, which will also someday be home for testing on water quality matters.
Lawmakers also agreed to a one-time expenditure of $150,000 for the agency to set up a program that offers grants — not tax rebates — to people who convert their vehicles to clean burning fuel.
Under the measure by Rep. Stephen Handy, HB87, people can apply for a grant of up to $2,500 and receive that immediately as a financial incentive, rather than a tax credit. Handy, a Republican from Layton, said he was trying to streamline the process and make it easier for motorists to convert to their vehicles to be less polluting.
Lawmakers also funded a $200,000 for a study on the impacts of wildfires on public lands — including air quality.