Chase Thomas

My view: Helping Utahns begin to move beyond coal

Source: Deseret News

Earlier this week, I was sitting in the Oakland City Council chambers with hundreds of other people — most from Oakland but a few from Utah — voicing opposition to using a proposed port for the transportation and shipment of coal. At the end of the meeting, the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance that would prohibit coal from moving through the city, citing health and safety concerns for their constituents and the broader global environment.

This was a great victory for the environment. However, Oakland’s actions will also hopefully save Utah taxpayers from wasting $53 million on a project that has been questioned not only for legal and ethical concerns, but also for its role in propping up a dying industry.

This got me thinking: Now that this money will not be contributing to polluting the city of Oakland, what other types of investments could Utah make with that amount of cash? More specifically, what could our Utah leaders do with that money to start investing in the futures of our rural communities like Wellington, Scofield, and many others that need to start transitioning beyond coal?

Did you know that 39 percent of rural Utahns still do not have access to high-speed internet? This means over 100,000 residents of our great state do not have a connection to the 21st century. If we are truly serious about helping rural communities in our state transition from a fossil-fuel economy to a modern economy, maybe we should start by making sure they can reliably access the internet. Bringing high-speed internet access to rural communities can bring increases in business and job growth, bring expanded educational opportunities, and bring advances in health care through telehealth services, among many other opportunities. Maybe some of the $53 million we have saved can go toward building a successful (read: not UTOPIA) community broadband system like they have in Wilson, North Carolina.

There has also been great success with government-funded training programs set up for former coal miners in Appalachia. Millions of dollars have been spent towards strategically targeted training programs in these areas, rather than further retrenching their economies in the energy sources of the past. Some of the $53 million we are saving could go towards identifying sectors of the economy in which these rural areas already have strengths, such as the recreation industry, and then providing those who so desire to make the transition out of the coal economy with tools necessary to do so.

While still on the topic of education, I learned that other rural regions have benefited greatly by the creative expansion of state or community colleges through distance learning programs. Not only will these types of investments in education help regions struggling from the decline of pollution-based energy production, it will also broaden access to quality education and training in the corners of the state our education infrastructure does not currently serve. Maybe our state legislators could spend some of the $53 million they just saved to improve education in these rural areas.

The royalties these counties have received under the Mineral Leasing Act are meant to be used for community planning, construction and maintenance of public facilities, and provision of public services. The purpose of these funds is to help communities who have relied on fossil-fuel extraction to move past the boom-and-bust nature of the industry. In a time when the coal industry seems to be in a perpetual state of bust, maybe our leaders could put these millions of dollars toward helping our fellow Utahns begin to move permanently beyond coal.

Chase Thomas is the policy and advocacy counsel with Alliance for a Better Utah.

Read Deseret News article here.

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