Delta power plant issues handled in special session

The Utah House of Representatives is pictured during a legislative special session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. They were to take up two key issues — securing enough energy for the state's future growth and retaining access to federal lands for purposes of multiple use.

The Utah House of Representatives is pictured during a legislative special session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. They were to take up two key issues — securing enough energy for the state's future growth and retaining access to federal lands for purposes of multiple use. (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers convened a special session Wednesday to take up two key issues that are top priorities in Utah — securing enough energy for the state's future growth and retaining access to federal lands for purposes of multiple use, including grazing, recreation, transmission lines, renewable energy and wildfire mitigation.

Both measures dealing with those issues passed.

HB3004 by Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, revamped provisions of an earlier bill dealing with the Intermountain Power Agency's Delta power plant that plans to transition to natural gas in a little more than a year.

The state wants to hold onto the coal units that exist at the plant by acquiring them before they are decommissioned, while looking for a third party to take ownership and operational control.

Owens said the intent of the legislation is to not disrupt existing power sources, including the new units under construction in Millard County, and to ensure a modified air quality permit is attainable under the current regulatory backdrop of the Clean Air Act.

Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, said the grid is already strained and he detailed the future energy necessary for growth. On top of that, more energy will be needed to meet the needs of future data centers, electric vehicles and the use of AI.

"We are already on the knife's edge," he said. "There's no room for error."

Lawmakers in the Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Interim Committee addressed the revisions to the Energy Security Amendments Law, which include extending the deadlines for the Office of Energy Development and the Utah Division of Air Quality to work through the process.

A decommission authority would weigh the path going forward.

"Let's keep energy available and affordable. And so for that, we're going to have to have all of the power plants. We need all of the plants we have," Jack said.

Lawmakers are pictured during a legislative special session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. They were to take up two key issues — securing enough energy for the state's future growth and retaining access to federal lands for purposes of multiple use.
Lawmakers are pictured during a legislative special session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. They were to take up two key issues — securing enough energy for the state's future growth and retaining access to federal lands for purposes of multiple use. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

The tug of war between state and local government and the Intermountain Power Agency has become more vigorous over time, leading to the steps taken in the last legislative session.

An audit from October 2023 found the Delta plant operates with little Utah government oversight, despite being set up decades ago as a political subdivision of the state. Of particular angst to some lawmakers is the fact that California receives 98% of the power but IPA is using Utah water and stopped using Utah coal to run its 1,900-megawatt plant. When it transitions to natural gas as mandated by California's clean energy standards, it plans to purchase that fuel from Wyoming.

Additionally, they said the Intermountain Power Agency is reaping substantial public benefit and contributes to Millard County's tax base, but not without excessive disputes. The auditor pointed out the plant has appealed its county tax assessment 26 of 38 years.

Against that backdrop, the bill passed 66-6 in the House and 27-0 in the Senate.

Public lands and the fight for access

The public lands measure, HB3002 introduced by Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, sets aside $6.7 million for the next fiscal year. It draws mostly on funds allocated to the Utah Attorney General's Office and Utah Department of Natural Resources.

It renames the Public Lands Litigation Restricted Account the Federal Overreach Restricted Account, and includes funds for the purpose of litigating or defending state and local government interests on federal land issues, consolidating the different pots of money being used in legal fights under one umbrella, Brooks said. It also sets up additional oversight over appropriations that have to go through the state Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee. Additionally, it allocates money to spend on a public information campaign to educate the public on the myriad federal regulatory practices and policies affecting the state and local communities.

"We have not done the best job of letting people know what's happening," Brooks said. "The things that are happening are quite catastrophic, in my opinion."

Rep. Brian King, D- Salt Lake City, said on the House floor that he was concerned about the accuracy of the information that will be relayed given the name of the fund includes "federal overreach."

He added he is worried that it will represent just one view — a partisan one — as he explained why he was voting no.

Lawmakers have particular angst over road closures being included in travel management plans that impact public access, which Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said should be important to all Utahns who want to enjoy the lands.

In addition, Brooks said the Public Lands rule released by the Bureau of Land Management opens up leases of federal land for purposes of conservation — adding that use to the scope of "multiple use," for which the lands are managed.

The proposed rule allows conservation leases to bypass environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and instead get a categorical exclusion to expedite the process.

Redge Johnson, director of the state's Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee that 50% of federally managed land in Utah is already in some conservation designation, whether it is Wilderness Study Areas, national monuments, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and others.

What the conservation rule would do is allow more restrictions on the land outside those designations, with the potential to impact grazing, wildfire mitigation, resource extraction, transmission lines and even the development of renewable energy, Johnson said.

On Tuesday, Utah and Wyoming filed suit over the rule in federal court.

Johnson said given the land management practices and policies of the federal government, Utah has 60 ongoing lawsuits and he predicted by the time the general legislative session in January, it will likely be closer to 80.

The public lands bill passed 62-10 in the House and in the Senate 22-5.

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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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