Coal Mine-Lawsuits

n this April 4, 2013, file photo, a mechanized shovel loads a haul truck with coal at the Spring Creek coal mine near Decker, Montana. A judge says U.S. officials should reconsider the climate change effects of expanding the mine. 

When I’m on my tractor and working our little patch of land, my neighbor Dale is fond of praising me when I ask him for advice. “Happy to help, John. None of us is going to live long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves.”

He’s right about that, though I do manage to fit in as many as possible between dawn and dusk.

I also have a really good relationship with my plumber, largely because I used to take a stab at fixing things before I eventually — inevitably — gave Chad a call. I’ve learned I can save a lot of money if I just go to the experts before I try to “fix” something.

When it comes to the science of climate change, the experts are sounding the alarms. Whether it’s the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. military, or my rancher neighbors who can now keep their cows on the mountain longer into winter, report after report outlines the threats due to a warming world caused primarily by burning fossil fuels.

A colleague of mine summarizes it this way: Climate change is real, it’s caused by us, it’s bad, but we can fix it. More sage advice from an expert.

Thankfully, it looks like the Utah Legislature is starting to listen. Last year, they passed HCR 7, the “Concurrent Resolution on Environmental and Economic Stewardship.” This bill encouraged “the responsible stewardship of natural resources and reduction of emissions through incentives and support of the growth in technologies and services that will enlarge the economy.”

This included a recognition by the state lawmakers that climate change is real, and Utah can become a leader in industries that simultaneously improve our planet and grow the economy. A small step, to be sure, but a welcome one.

And they haven’t stopped there. Several bills under consideration this season specifically address the dangers of a changing climate.

HCR 5, called the “Resolution Urging Policies That Reduce Damage from Wildfires” looks to address the threat of the dangerous blazes that increasingly plague the west. Are there problems with the way we manage our forests? Yes. Is climate change making those matters worse? Absolutely.

HCR 2, titled “Resolution Supporting Renewable and Sustainable Energy” encourages rural areas to invest in alternative energy sources. Testimony in committee revealed that Beaver County has increased its property tax rolls by fronting investment in geothermal projects.

Turns out Utah has some of the best solar, wind, and geothermal resources in the country. The only problem? They aren’t easy to reach. Of course, that’s never stopped us when drilling for oil and gas. But things such as wind and solar require little infrastructure, aside from the wires to carry the electricity away. The trick is to encourage investment in those areas. It also comes with all the economic benefits of energy development, without the damage to air quality of extractive industries. As they say, a solar energy spill is just a really sunny day.

HCR 2 sailed through the House with a 72-0 vote. When was the last time that happened?

HB127/SB146 the Sales Tax Exemption Revisions allows a tax exemption for an “electric energy storage asset.” As I tell my physics students, we don’t have an energy problem, we have an energy-storage problem. We love fossil fuels because they provide a massive amount of energy in a relatively small package. If we can crack the energy storage problem, a lot of our other issues vanish. Any incentive to innovate helps.

And perhaps the pièce de résistance is HB 402, which calls on Utah to switch the tax burden from things like sales tax to fossil fuels. What you save at the grocery store would offset the higher price of gas at the pump. But here’s the deal: you can choose not to burn gas, thus saving money in the long run.

As we know, in the state of Utah, if you want citizens to use less of something, tax it. It works for booze, it works for cigarettes, and it will work for fossil fuels. And we can save the diesel fuel for things we really need, like tractors.

In addition to Dale’s saying, there’s a corollary: “You’re never too old to make a mistake you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”

With the future of the planet Earth in our hands, I’m happy to see us listening to the experts. With any luck, we can avoid some of those future mistakes.

Dr. John Armstrong is a professor of physics at Weber State University. Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong

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