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SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Utah lawmakers voted to take on a "600-pound gorilla with 2% body fat," by wresting some of the autonomy away from the Intermountain Power Agency that runs a coal-fired power plant sending the majority of its electricity to Southern California.
Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green and sponsor of SB 2002, which passed Wednesday in both the House and the Senate, said the power plant in Millard County has been operating under the same conditional use permit for 35 years and its operating authority was classified as a political subdivision of the state of Utah — even though it largely operates on behalf of the Los Angeles Department of Power of Utah.
He added that 99% of the power goes to southern California cities and Utah elected officials lack appropriate oversight of the plant.
Over the years, Utah lawmakers passed 21 bills and amended state code 70 times, whittling away scrutiny without having a conversation with Millard County officials — to their frustration.
"So this is a 600-pound gorilla with 2% body fat," Owens said, stressing the need to instill more transparency and accountability for the plant's owners.
Among other things, Owens' measure specifically:
- Removes the ability of the Intermountain Power Agency to exercise eminent domain on the 5,000 acres it occupies in Millard County, even though it has not used that power previously.
- Subjects the agency to audits by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.
- Eliminates the ability for the agency to create "segments," which Owens said are a way to clone an entity with the same rights and privileges IPA has.
The Intermountain Power Authority inked a contract for out-of-state natural gas for a third unit — one that could provide hydrogen over time — and is preparing to go to market for more than $2 million in bonding in January.
The coming change is what Owens said triggered lawmakers to act in a special session and not wait until January when the general session starts. He stressed the operational guide posts should be well in place before then.
Critics fear those changes to state law will chase away the plant entirely, resulting in the loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs should the Los Angeles power company pull the plug on the Utah operation.
Additionally, over its lifetime, the plant has generated about $700 million in revenue for state and local coffers.
There are also fears that because some Utah cities that belong to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems that get electricity from the power plant will be forced to fill the void if the plant leaves the state.
The legislation does not impact the association itself.
"UAMPS was never intended to be the target of this legislation and as currently drafted it does not impact UAMPS," said LaVarr Webb, spokesman for the organization.
Despite charges to the contrary, Owens stressed the bill is not intended to alter the energy source at the plant — although he conceded it could.
Kate Bradshaw, a lobbyist for IPA and Bountiful City council member, spoke in "extreme opposition" to the measure before a caucus meeting, stressing it was a last-minute bill that unfairly goes after an entity that does not take any tax dollars in Utah — and at the time of its creation was a "unicorn" that merited special considerations because of its unique nature.
She added that the transformation to natural gas units at the plant will require a new transmission line that would necessitate the use of eminent domain — something Millard County does not have the authority to grant.
"So we view this as greatly delaying the project," Bradshaw said.
Dean Draper, chairman of the Millard County Commission, said the county has had a frustrating relationship with IPA over the years and changes are due.
"You're going to hear opposition from some cities, probably Bountiful, Murray or whatever. And you're going to continue to hear that opposition. Ask the question, if this is so good, why is it not in your backyard? Well, the bottom line is that it is in my backyard," he said. "And yet we have everybody in this big circle that gets to make the decision of what's going to happen in my backyard. Legislators, we ask for your help."