Why Cox got fired up over fossil fuel development and climate change

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox defended supporting new oil and gas leases slated to be offered on federal public lands in Utah this summer, even as the state is grappling with the effects of an unprecedented drought that studies say is the worst in the region in 12 centuries.

"I am so tired of these false choices," he said Thursday during the governor's monthly PBS Utah news conference with reporters.

"In fact, if we did everything that has ever been proposed by every environmentalist in this state right now, it would have zero impact on global emissions, because right now China and India every year are (tripling) us out of any savings, any reductions we are doing in the United States."

The seeming contradiction of Cox supporting offering oil and gas leases even as he issued an emergency drought declaration for the state hinges on the role human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have in climate change.

While researchers who published a study on the megadrought say it is 42% linked to anthropogenic climate change and would be happening regardless of man's contributions, the pressure is tremendous to cut emissions in the face of a warming climate and extreme weather events.

Sophie Hayes, Western Resource Advocates' managing senior staff attorney in Utah, said Cox is wrong.

"Utah contributes to climate change and is already experiencing its effects in a more severe way than the global average. Fossil fuel use causes climate change, and we urgently need Utah leaders to take strong and comprehensive policy action to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels," she said.

Hayes added that Utah needs to take responsibility for its own actions.

"We have climate solutions already — clean power and emissions-free transportation that will help build a thriving, healthier future for ourselves and our children. But we need state leaders to take the kind of bold action that allows Utahns to benefit from these solutions. We need our leaders to look forward, rather than looking backward and increasing our commitment to fossil fuels."

President Joe Biden has pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by half by the end of this decade, and Hayes said Utah needs to play an active role in that effort.

But Cox said the answer is not an accelerated reduction in domestic production but rather new technology.

"If there is one person in the world who thinks we are going to regulate our way out of climate change, they are fooling themselves. We will never do that," he said. "Anytime we have had a crisis, we've innovated our way out of that crisis," he said during Thursday's news conference.


The governor emphasized there is a need for more renewables.

"Yes, we need to be increasing our wind production. We need to be increasing our solar production. We need to be increasing our geothermal production. And let me be even more clear right now, and that is we have to start looking at nuclear energy. Again, if you really care about climate change, if you really care about emissions, then you should be the first person advocating for nuclear energy."

Cox said he's not advocating for the type of nuclear power plants that began operating 50 or 60 years ago, but the latest technology in development.

Several Utah cities, in fact, may be destined for nuclear power delivered via the Carbon Free Power Project, which plans to use small modular reactor technology from NuScale. That company had its design certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission — the first of its kind to pass the rigorous review process.

Cox added that by cutting domestic production, that chases the demand for oil and gas to other countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, which lack the same environmental review standards.

Biden, on his first day in office, stopped any leasing of oil and gas resources on federal lands and offshore.

His administration recently announced the resumption of some leasing, but the Utah Petroleum Association, the Western Energy Alliance and the Cox administration say the sparse offering will do little to increase production or impact the price at the pump.

At the same time, fossil fuel critics have blasted the president for abandoning his campaign promise to end domestic drilling for oil and gas.

Cox added that even as federal leases are offered, investment in new production is deterred.

"But what people fail to understand — who don't operate in the practical world, who have never run a company, who have never run investments — (what) they don't understand is that messages that come, especially from the top, really determine where capital gets invested, and capital is a coward. It will flee where it is not wanted and go where it is welcomed and wanted," Cox said.

"And what this administration has done is send the message over and over again that energy development and energy production in this country, traditional energy production, is not welcome."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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