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Utah Business

Natural Resources & Environment Roundtable

Every month, Utah Business partners with Holland & Hart to host a roundtable event featuring industry insiders. This month, environmental leaders got together to discuss the outlook of natural resources and the environment in Utah, changes that have occurred over the past five years, and what Utah can do better to support our quality of life. Moderated by Holland & Hart partner, Angela Franklin, here are a few highlights from the event.

Tell us about the current landscape.

Thom Carter | Executive Director | Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR)

Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen an increase in the population of about 32 percent and a reduction in emissions of about 35 percent. The outlook is good, but it means that we can’t rest on our laurels because part of the reason why things have been going so well is because of the weather. 

We’ve made progress, our air is cleaner, but it doesn’t mean it’s clean. We need to 1) be optimistic, and 2) continue to work hard as it relates to encouraging people to shift their behaviors. The governor had a declaration on Monday calling for an idle-free month, an idle-free season, so helping people understand why it’s important to be idle-free and how they can be part of the solutions. I think we’re all trying to find individual solutions.

If family or community, business, can find two or three things they can do every single day that will reduce their emissions or their combustion, then we’re going to continue to see a reduction across the board.

Amanda Smith | VP Policy & Senior Counsel | sPower

I think the outlook for renewables throughout the country is good. There are some specific constraints in Utah, but generally, if you look across the country more and more, states and local governments are passing renewable portfolio standards, and either goals or requirements for meeting a non-carbon energy base in the next 10, 15, 20 years.

So, what that does for our industry is drives that demand. A lot of companies have included in their sustainability goals a requirement to move to 100 percent renewable energy. The constraints are that now the development of renewables is facing a lot of the same hurdles that traditional, carbon-based energy has faced in the past with land-use constraints. 

Community groups who are organizing don’t want to have energy production in their communities, and other constraints with being able to connect to the grid. High costs when plugged into the transmission grid when the price of energy is continuing to drop. It’s a very dynamic and interesting market.

Steve Kieffer | Director of Business Development | Big-D Construction

The outlook for the construction market is good. The market has been very strong for the last several years. The challenge we face is labor. You’ve got the prison, you’ve got the airport, you’ve got a lot of large projects, and we’ve had a real struggle getting those kids coming into the trades actually interested in getting into the construction trades. So we’ve made a big effort with all the general contractors, with all the tech colleges and all that, to really get kids excited and interested in construction because they can make a good living in that business.

What significant changes have you witnessed in the natural resources and environmental industries these past five years?

Thom Carter | Executive Director | Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR)

I think the main thing from a UCAIR perspective, what we’ve seen in the last five years, is an attitude change. Five years ago we asked people the open-ended question, ‘what contributes most to our bad air quality?’ About 60 percent of those who responded said, ‘It came from industrial sources.’ Well everybody in this room knows that that’s not the case, so we went to work as an organization and as a community, to educate people on really what’s the cause of our sources. We know that about 50 percent come from our mobile sources.

We did this poll again about eight months ago and 55 percent of people said the number one cause was ‘cars and mobile sources.’ That’s a huge shift. 

Amanda Smith | VP Policy & Senior Counsel | sPower

How quickly technology is moving in the renewable space, which is bringing down the cost significantly. I think we’re at a tipping point in our industry in terms of how we can fulfill the demand in the country, and in the world, for renewable energy.

Adrienne Bell | Partner | Holland & Hart

Utah has been leading the nation in the construction of new homes and apartments. We’re three times the national average for housing construction, but we still have a housing shortage, and an affordability issue given that our population is growing so rapidly. We’re also number one in the nation for population growth in the past decade.

I think that issue touches all of the issues that we’re talking about in terms of air quality, in terms of demand for resources, and how our natural environment and our systems will respond to that kind of sustained population growth like this. It’s a challenge and needs to be addressed. I’ll leave it at that. 

Jared Jackson | Mine Manager | JR Simplot

One of the big differences we’ve seen is, how big of an impact different administrations can have on the mining industry. We went from a war on coal to an administration that’s looking at critical minerals and saying, ‘how do we make sure we don’t rely on foreign nations to supply those?’ So we’ve seen big shifts there.

When it comes to mining, whether it’s coal, or wind, or solar, all are going to need materials that come from mining, so mining benefits from any of the above. There’s a bigger impact though on specific local communities. You know, you might have an area like Price that gets greatly affected by a war on coal, so to speak, but you might have a Rio Tinto Kennecott that could benefit quite a bit from solar and wind. So, it all is related to mining, but it’s very specific to different areas, depending on what is mined in those areas.

Alex Porpora | Executive Director | Utah Society for Environmental Education

I go right back to attitude. There is just this incredible attitude shift that we are seeing. 

One of the things we’ve done at our organization is to recognize youth for achievement in environmental ed. Traditionally, we always get nominations for individuals are engaged in traditional EE, whether they’re working with youth through an organization. This year the number of nominees we had for youth under the age of 25, who are engaged with asking their city council for air quality ordinances, who two of our youth nominees submitted a piece of, it wasn’t necessarily legislation, but it was signed by Gary Herbert, having our state legislature recognize that climate change exists. These are the youth who are leading the climate strikes and some of these other movements.

This shift in attitude is really kind of tremendous, and to also see that being supported by adults here in Utah, I know that a handful of the youth who are part of Fridays for Climate, their principal has let them take Friday off. They say, “You’re engaged in the community, please go ahead and do this.” I wouldn’t have been allowed to do that when I was going to school.

Steve Kieffer | Director of Business Development | Big-D Construction

Again, it’s labor. One example though, there is a large tech project out west, and just to show how competitive it is to get labor out there, they actually are providing employees bonuses just for showing up every day, they’re providing their lunches. They have kind of, a convenience store set up, where they can go get a drink or candy bars, guaranteeing overtime for those employees, just to keep them on that project.

So, you’re seeing trades wanting to go to certain projects because of bonuses, so it’s something we deal with every day. You see all the multi-family housing going up everywhere, you see the commercial, the warehouse, industrial, and it’s just tough to get employees. You’ll see a lot of that where a subcontractor may be committed a project and then all of a sudden they don’t have the workforce there on-site and they kind of disappear. It’s a challenge for all general contractors right now.

What can Utah do better?

Alex Porpora | Executive Director | Utah Society for Environmental Education

More funding would be excellent. But I also think about model programs that are being launched and how we can think about doing them sustainably. This year, through the Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, our state passed the Every Utah Kid Outdoors Initiative, which is really a wonderful piece of legislation. Tied to that is $100,000 in appropriations to fund nature and outdoor programming. That ties in really nicely to our outdoor and recreation sector, which is a $12 billion dollar industry in our state. $100,000 over one year, with a max grant award of $15,000 does not do a lot for an organization.

When we think about how we are trying to fund these programs that bring youth outdoors or expose them to the environment, which I think lead to these careers in either nonprofit, renewables, or natural resources careers. Unless you have that point of entry you’re not going to get individuals to continue down that career path.

Jared Jackson | Mine Manager | JR Simplot

Two comments I would make, one is if the state agencies are willing to have open lines of communication, especially when there are new regulations or legislation coming out, as far as how they impact different industries throughout the state.

Then the other, I’ll just make one more comment about the infrastructure. So in our area, of course, the railway is a huge topic right now in the Uinta Basin and the impact it could have on the community. But another example of that is at Simplot we have been visiting with UDOT, and communicating with them about forming a partnership to improve the highway through our area and make it safer, and also provide access to some of the phosphate reserves that are underneath the highway. Another opportunity we’re looking at is whether the state agencies are willing to partner on mutually beneficial projects.

LeeAnn Diamond | Environmental Manager | Crystal Peak Minerals

I think that a little bit more partnering could actually benefit both the regulators and the companies coming forward, you know that are coming up after us.

What other information would you like our community to know?

Angela Franklin | Partner | Holland & Hart

The quality of life in Utah is amazing and I think we all want that quality of life to be maintained, and to have clean water. It’s a partnership, absolutely, among the industries and the environment, and we all care about it.

From an oil and gas standpoint, natural gas provides us with a really great, cleaner product than coal. It gives us a very good lifestyle from a clean air standpoint, and oil, I don’t think people think about what petroleum products provide to us. Every single one of us sitting here is wearing petroleum products. There are very few products that do not benefit from petroleum products; the colors, your coloring, the stretch in your clothing, your contacts, your makeup, your lotions, your aspirin is made from a petroleum product. 

Alex Porpora | Executive Director | Utah Society for Environmental Education

Environmental ed, I think, is really part of a well-rounded education. Environmental ed contributes to individuals being able to be informed decision-makers in their community and to make good decisions as they continue throughout their lives.

Jared Jackson | Mine Manager | JR Simplot

The mining industry is operating more safely and in a more environmentally sustainable manner than ever before. Just recently, the Utah Mining Associate shared some safety facts from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, workers at department stores are injured at a 50 percent higher rate than miners. Workers at golf courses have a 67 percent higher injury rate than miners. That gives you a feel for how safe it is to work in the mining industry today.

Also, Mining Utah provides thousands of high paying jobs throughout the state of Utah. It generates significant revenue to the state, it provides the products that we all enjoy; such as cars, computers, cell phones, and in the case of phosphate or potash that we mine, its sufficient food to feed our growing population.

Christine Mikkel | CEO | Enyo Renewable Energy

I think we should all think about what we think the future will be. Do we think the future is digging up the ancient remains of plants to burn in giant steam engines? Or solar panels made from silicon storing the electricity and using the same battery technology that we’re all holding in our iPhones? Solar and storage, compared to coal are like an iPhone compared to a telegraph. Every industry is disrupted by technological change, so we need to embrace it, and if we don’t we might find our communities like Emery County looking like Detroit. That’s all.

Thom Carter | Executive Director | Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR)

There are no perfect answers when it comes to air quality, but there are practical solutions. So we want you to be mindful of your emissions and their combustion. Identify something that you could do today, whether it’s carpool, or go idle-free, whether it’s purchasing an electric lawnmower or snow blower, or even lowering their thermostat in the winter or keeping it warmer in the summer. Just identifying something you can do today to try it, do it, make a change, and then do something else tomorrow.