Proposed Utah mine expansion reflects politics of coal
It was the simple beauty of the sagebrush hills and the first-rate fishing that drew Vince Salvato here 15 years ago. “All I wanted was a quiet, pristine place with clean air,” he said, sipping sarsaparilla inside Bronco Bobbi’s curio shop in this tiny town in southern Utah. “That’s why I came here.”
But the tranquillity has been broken by the day-and-night rumble of trucks ferrying coal from a strip mine near Bryce Canyon National Park to a power plant three hours to the north.
The gritty fuel helps satisfy the huge appetite for power more than 500 miles away in Los Angeles. But it is now stoking controversy at both ends of the transmission lines over energy policy, environmental damage and how much consumers should pay to kick the coal habit.
Los Angeles gets more of its power from coal than from any other source, with the Utah plant providing more than a quarter of the city’s electricity and an Arizona generating station providing an additional 12%. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pledged to wean L.A. off coal entirely by 2020. But that’s proving to be a monumental commitment — and one difficult to keep.
Big rate increases — as yet uncalculated — would be needed to develop renewable and natural gas alternatives to replace coal, according to officials at the city’s Department of Water and Power. But voters battered by the economy, and the politicians who represent them, are in no mood to hear about higher bills.
A major obstacle to greening the city’s energy portfolio is the DWP’s contract with the Utah plant, which requires L.A. to buy power until 2027. It’s unclear if and when — and at what cost — the city can extract itself from the contract.
The vast power needs of the nation’s second-largest city and lagging progress on alternative sources are part of what’s driving efforts to harvest more coal in southern Utah.
Salvato and others fought the opening of the 635-acre Coal Hollow Mine in the town of Alton last year because of concerns about possible effects on public health, the National Park and the region’s tourism. Now the same mining firm wants to expand its operations more than fivefold, mostly on federal land, to meet ongoing demand.
That’ll mean more dust, more trucks and more noise in Alton and nearby Panguitch, Salvato said. “It’s going to be a nightmare, a positive nightmare. This town will die on the vine.”
Southern Utah is rich with mineral deposits but also geological jewels, which have been protected in five national parks and one national monument. A primary concern among critics is the mine’s proximity to Bryce Canyon, with its jagged rock pillars, clear skies and still nights. The mine sits about 10 miles away.
Park officials oppose the expansion and have challenged the methodology used in a draft environmental impact study by the Bureau of Land Management assessing the proposal’s effects. “These national parks are forever, so we have to be very cautious about incremental degradation over time,” said Jeff Bradybaugh, the superintendent at Bryce.
The study determined that the mine expansion would diminish air quality and hurt the region’s tourism industry. But it recommended granting a lease that would allow the expansion, in part because a larger mine would bring much-needed employment and tax revenue to the area.
At the Flying M restaurant in Panguitch, Leland Pollock echoed that sentiment. A commissioner in Garfield County, just north of the site, Pollock said more mining could breathe new life into a struggling stretch of rural America.
“We need jobs bad,” said Pollock, who had ordered a chicken pot pie and a glass of milk. Nearly all of the surrounding land is owned by the federal government, he said, which limits opportunities for private business. He blamed newcomers and environmental groups for trying to kill the expansion.
“Environmentalist” is a bad word among many in these parts. Some old-timers are still smarting from an epic battle four decades ago over a planned coal-fired plant east of Bryce Canyon that ultimately was abandoned after opposition from environmental groups and federal regulatory agencies.
Los Angeles helped build Utah’s Intermountain Power Project in the early 1980s. At the time, the city’s nearly 50-year contract with the plant made sense. Coal is the cheapest power available, costing as little as four cents per kilowatt-hour, and the long-term investment meant Los Angeles had a reliable source of power even in periods of energy volatility.
But in recent years, California’s attitude toward coal has cooled as lawmakers seek to take the lead in green energy. State law now requires utilities to procure a third of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020. It also prevents utilities from signing new contracts with coal-fired power plants.
Those goals would have been challenge enough for the DWP, the largest municipally owned water and electric utility in the country. But Villaraigosa raised the bar in 2009 by promising the city would be coal-free by 2020.
A Villaraigosa spokesman said the goal is still reachable, but would not say how. An official at the Utah plant said its owners are exploring the possibility of switching to gas-fired generators to help keep the DWP and several other California utilities as customers.
But DWP General Manager Ron Nichols said that replacing coal altogether in the next eight years would be a “herculean effort. It’s not something we think we can do.”
A conversion of the Utah plant to natural gas, for example, would have to be agreed upon by all 36 utilities that buy energy from it, he said. “It’s a big floor dance, and we all have to move in unison.”
He stressed that progress is being made, citing the city’s intention to sell its share in the Arizona coal-fired plant as soon as 2015.
Some have questioned whether the mayor’s 2020 deadline is attainable. Austin Beutner, a mayoral candidate who served two years ago as the DWP’s interim general manager, said the city’s longtime reliance on coal makes getting off of it extremely complicated. He said Villaraigosa’s no-coal commitment, announced with much fanfare during his 2009 inaugural address, was probably “the triumph of politics over pragmatism.”
Still, Los Angeles has shown that its energy policy does hold sway. After Villaraigosa signaled the city’s intention to end coal power purchases, for example, the Utah plant canceled plans to add a generating unit.
At the curio shop in Panguitch, proprietor Bobbi Bryant is hoping L.A. now will flex its muscles on the proposed coal mine expansion.
“We understand your need for electricity,” Bryant said. “But at least stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to buy from a strip mine next to a national treasure.’ ”