While environmentalists cheered, state government and central Utah county leaders expressed dismay about the Obama administration’s decision to halt new coal leases on federal lands.
The move is expected to have long-term ramifications on already struggling economies in Carbon and Emery counties, which have for many years depended on coal mining and production.
Eight in ten jobs in Carbon County come from mining and power plants, county commissioner Jae Potter said. Hundreds of people lost jobs in the county and neighboring Emery County last year when a coal plant and coal mine closed.
“This kind of attack on one industry, particularly in our county, is absolutely devastating,” Potter said. “What made this country great and built free enterprise and industries, they’re to kill that.”
He said the Obama administration is listening only to environmental groups and neglecting the impacts on communities like his that live on coal.
“We know that burning any fossil fuel is an issue, but it is so clean these days,” Potter said.
Utah is among the states most likely to be impacted by the ruling, along with Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. More than 40 percent of U.S. coal production, or about 450 million tons a year, comes from public lands in these Western states, bringing in more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
In Utah, 80 percent of the coal reserves are on federal land, according to state figures. And an estimated 76 percent of the electricity in Utah comes from five coal-fired power plants.
Gov. Gary Herbert said through a spokesman that he’s “deeply troubled” by the announcement that will impact a coal production industry that goes back 100 years in Utah.
“This unprecedented shift picks winners and losers, and threatens the future of affordable and reliable energy resources that support our thriving economy,” said Herbert’s spokesman Jon Cox in a statement.
Environmental groups applauded the decision as a move that will help decrease the country’s dependence on contaminating fossil fuels.
“Whether you’re most concerned about climate change or air pollution, it’s overwhelmingly clear that coal is the electricity-making source of the past, not the future,” said Matt Pacenza, executive director of the environmental group Heal Utah.