Should the state of Utah spend public money on an electrical transmission line project that would largely benefit the oil and gas industry in the Uintah Basin?
Utah State Treasurer and Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) member Richard Ellis is questioning whether the board should approve the Six County Infrastructure Coalition’s requests for low-interest loan and grant funding to build a power line through the Book Cliffs.
The CIB voted 7-2 last month to give the coalition $1.35 million in grant funding for the first two-mile phase of the proposed project; Ellis and Naghi Zeenati voted against the majority. CIB member Bruce Adams – one of four members who also represents the infrastructure coalition – was the only member who abstained from voting on the request.
The vote to approve the coalition’s proposal came shortly after a majority of CIB members rejected Grand County’s request for grant and low-interest loan funding to upgrade its aging jail, based on the perception that the county opposes mineral development.
Other funding requests from the coalition may be pending, but Six County Infrastructure Coalition Executive Director Ralph Okerlund said the group is actively prepared to move forward with the project.
“The coalition has an opportunity right now to be able to use the right-of-way that we have available to us that we can build this line,” he said during the board’s meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 6. “We can own it, and we can deliver that power that we need to deliver out there to meet the needs that we have out there.”
It’s unclear at this time where “out there” is. The right-of-way would cut somewhere through the Book Cliffs, which run north of Interstate 70 and east of U.S. Highway 191 from Price all the way beyond the Colorado state line. But other details about the project location are scarce.
“I don’t think it’s ever been mentioned specifically where that right-of-way is,” Ellis told the Moab Sun News.
It is remote enough, however, for Ellis to repeatedly liken it to Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”
“It’s the tail end of a 40- to 80-mile transmission line,” he told the CIB.
As far as Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird knows, the project could be anywhere in a vast four-county area that runs from Grand to Carbon counties. Baird suspects that the location and other project details are being kept under wraps for the time being.
“A lot of these projects are discussed in closed meetings under the pretense that somebody could sue them,” Baird said. “But I don’t foresee any litigation (here).”
Grand County Council member Mary Mullen McGann said she’s troubled that the coalition’s representatives did not specify where the right-of-way is.
“There’s not supposed to be all of this vagueness in their application,” she said.
Speaking of vagueness, Ellis said he hasn’t seen a business plan that explains who would benefit from the project, or provide any answers to the other questions he has.
Right now, he said, it appears that the coalition is hoping to provide a publicly subsidized benefit to a private industry.
Okerlund acknowledged that the request was a “not as traditional” as other proposals that come before the board, and may “stretch the definition” of a public service.
But he said the transmission line would benefit the public by improving air quality in the Uintah Basin and the state as a whole.
“It’s important for us to be able to address that issue in some way, and we think we have a very good way to do that, to ensure that we’ll be able to meet the (pollution) attainment levels that we have to … by cleaning up the air out there,” he said. “The way to do that is to electrify those oil fields and make sure that we’re giving power to them so that they do not have to use and burn fuels that are out there.”
It would also serve the public interest, he said, by reducing the number of power outages in the region.
At current growth rates, the infrastructure coalition estimates that the Uintah Basin’s electrical grid has about two years of capacity left, and Okerlund said the additional line would curb the likelihood of future brownouts.
Ellis told the Moab Sun News that he can understand why it would be in the oil and gas industry’s interests to run electrical pumps at their operations, instead of ones that run on diesel or natural gas.
“But that’s a private-sector problem, and if we’re just subsidizing it for that reason, it seems like a pass-through,” he said.
In the wake of the board’s decision to approve the $1.35 million grant, Ellis suggested that CIB members should review the kinds of projects they fund.
“I had asked that we have a broader discussion about where we are headed with these types of projects,” Ellis said.
Under state code, projects that are eligible for CIB funding include public infrastructure or services that local governmental entities traditionally provide.
McGann said she believes that CIB members are straying beyond their duties under that code.
“It seems like they’re getting away from their written mission,” she said. “It is community impact money.”
Okerlund said that the infrastructure coalition would own the transmission lines, and would also provide the public service to the community.
While public funding would cover the bulk of the project costs for the first two-mile stretch, companies that represent the oil and gas industry would contribute 25 percent of the price tag, according to Okerlund.
“They know how important and necessary it is to have power delivered out to those sites, rather than having them burn fossil fuels out there,” he said.
For his part, Ellis questioned whether the CIB wants to stop funding water, road and sewer projects – or senior citizens centers and libraries – to pay for the likes of the proposed transmission line.
Even today, he said, the CIB is dealing with the perception that it is slanted toward industry.
“We’ve done a couple of projects now that have been painted as being public money benefiting private business,” he said.
“Are we willing to throw everything else out to do these types of projects?” he asked. “Are they eligible projects?”
Community Impact Board grants $1.35 million, after rejecting Grand County’s request for jail funding
The coalition has an opportunity right now to be able to use the right-of-way that we have available to us that we can build this line … We can own it, and we can deliver that power that we need to deliver out there to meet the needs that we have out there.