Congressional Hearing In Utah Highlights Energy’s Role In Education
A panel of Utah educators, county commissioners, and students argued for more regulatory certainty and for the recognition of the importance of revenues from the energy industry, and particularly oil and natural gas, to their education and state infrastructure at a field hearing on Wednesday.
The House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), held a field hearing at Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah. Located in the Uinta Basin, Union High School serves Duchesne and Uintah counties, and has received plenty of support from energy industry revenues, directly and indirectly, panelists told the committee.
Jeff Hanke, a Union High School social studies teacher and coach, said “energy related natural resources” shared an intimate “connection with our rural based lifestyle” in central Utah’s Uinta Basin.
“Here within the Uinta Basin, the educational facilities and programs share a great relationship with the energy extraction industry,” said Hanke. He pointed to the partnerships between energy industry members and programs and facilities at the nearby Utah State University Uintah Basin and Uintah Basin Technical College, which share campuses and “provide course offerings towards energy related careers and facilities to simulate job-ready skills needed by the energy industry.”
Hanke said that energy companies also help the community and local schools by sponsoring extracurricular activities, such as the choir performance that opened the committee hearing or providing money for the playing fields used by students.
“For centuries, subsistence for the lives of Uinta Basin residents has been dependent upon the resources of the natural environment. Mining and onshore energy natural resources found within the basin provide opportunities for employment and community sustainability,” Hanke told the committee. “Energy discovery, extraction, and refining have played a key role in the growth of neighboring cities, towns and communities like Vernal, Altamont, Duchesne, and Tabiona. Each share increased growth and prosperity due to the fifty plus years of continuous expansion and development of the energy natural resources available.”
“Because the public education of our nation’s new and next generation remains a fundamental goal, it remains a critical public service, not to be limited, under-valued, or ignored by any level or purpose of government,” Hanke added.
“Many western States, Utah included, are annually confronted with the distribution of limited funds towards their most precious resource, their children. The ownership and stewardship of large portions of federal lands within the jurisdiction of a state present challenges for state-provided services such as public education,” Hanke said, with federal lands’ tax-exempt status within the boundaries of western states causing “deficiencies in vital public funding, especially education, as compared to states with more taxable private land ownership.”
Hanke told the committee that the “shared distribution of tax and lease revenues between the federal government and States where mining and energy resources are recovered” from the Mineral Leasing Act helps bridge those deficiencies but is not a panacea, as public policy choices reducing or discouraging energy production limits what revenues might be acquired. “Limitations or loss of these revenues further limit revenue sources that could be targeted towards public education,” Hanke explained.
The future of both education and energy is, ultimately, inextricably intertwined.
Spencer Stokes, a Utah State School Board member, said that the relationship between energy and education is complicated, however, perhaps in his state more than others, including surrounding states that also have a large share of state land owned and managed by the federal government.
“As you know, Mr. Chairman, we have limited sources of funding for our schools in the state,” Stokes said, with over 60 percent of land in Utah federally controlled. “It puts a tax and a burden on local education areas and districts, and it makes it difficult for them when they’re in an area that’s mostly owned by the federal government to be able to derive the kinds of resources they need for their local district.”
Stokes said property and income taxes were both affected. “I’d like to see how that works to have some money in public education,” Stokes said. He added that low per-pupil education funding could be tied to high levels of federal land ownership, and that the lack of money was “letting down” students.
Additional money for teaching assistants, for example, would go a long way to increasing education scores as well as graduation rates.
Bishop asked Stokes if discouraging energy development, such as policies that target certain sectors of the energy industry, would impact education revenues in Utah, especially with so many acres of Utah land owned by the federal government.
“Statewide it has a devastating impact on the tax dollars that come in through income tax and property tax,” Stokes said. “Not being able to determine the outcome of this federal really does hurt the economic vibrancy of the state of Utah.”
“Without that [funding], you lose things like early childhood education, you just can’t fund it,” Stokes said, adding in other educational efforts like teacher development, hiring, and retention.
“Being able to hire and retain outstanding teachers,” Stokes said, especially in more rural areas of the state, “when you don’t have the revenue and resources because there is a stifling effect on the development of public lands, it really hurts the economic viability of the state, and that trickles down.”
Annalee Birchell, a student and senior at Union High School, said her family’s history is tied to both education and the energy industry, and the link between the two has had a positive impact on her life.
“I am the product of two career fields: education and the energy,” Birchell said, describing her upbringing in a family of educators like her grandmother and her aunt, the 2018 Utah Teacher of the Year, as well as her father and grandfather, who worked in the extractive fields.
“I also watched both my father and grandfather come home from a long day of work, covered from head to toe with mud, chemicals and grease. I am a fourth generation descendant of men who settled the Uintah Basin and worked in the Gilsonite Mines for many years,” Birchell said, adding that, “I am also the descendant of many generations of educators, from elementary school up to college professors. I have seen the influence of both of these careers. They correlate. One cannot work without the other. Education perpetuates energy.”
“The energy field cannot succeed without the knowledge and skills education provides,” Birchell added. “Living in a rural setting has taught me the necessity of educating people in all fields,” especially in a boom-and-bust industry. Birchell, along with fellow student Nathan Wallace, said that the industry has helped create a “positive culture” in the Basin, along with helping to fund programs at nearby UB Tech, with many of the Union High School students attending and gaining technical skills that will prepare them for possible energy careers.
The interrelation of energy and the economic health of the county goes back 7 decades, according to Ron Winterton, Duchesne County Commissioner.
“The first commercial well went into production in 1948 in Ashley Valley and since that time, the oil and gas industry has played a major role in our county, impacting our employment, our economy, social issues, and of course education,” Winterton said. “Today, Duchesne County is heavily dependent on the energy industry and we are the least economically diverse economy in Utah. Duchesne County and the state of Utah are doing all we can to promote the responsible development of our energy resources.”
Winterton told the hearing that a special Uintah Basin Energy Zone, established by the state of Utah, intends to “maximize efficient and responsible development of energy and mineral resources” for Utah and the country.
Winterton said Duchesne County “supports efficient and responsible development of resources and supports cooperative management among federal agencies, state, and local governments to achieve management plans for the full development of energy and mineral resources.”
“We call for expedited mineral and energy leasing and continued maintenance of infrastructure to support energy and mineral development. We urge the federal agencies to refrain from policies and decisions that will hamper the development of our resources,” Winterton said.
Winterton said that Utah’s severance tax provides substantial revenue for state and county governments, with 48 percent of the federal royalty returning to Utah and 25 percent going directly to the county of origin. The revenues and royalties derived from energy development “fund critical public infrastructure and improvement projects to meet the needs of our citizens and include water and sewer infrastructure, transportation, irrigation, health, parks, recreation, and local government infrastructure,” according to Winterton’s prepared testimony. “However, none are more important than the education of our children and the public infrastructure necessary to support a vibrant education system,” he wrote.
Winterton attributed some of the industry’s boom-and-bust cycles to federal land ownership regulatory processes and asked for more certainty “to attract industry and sustain investments.”
Winterton’s counterpart in neighboring Uintah County, County Commissioner Brad Horrocks, said the region’s natural resources give it a much-needed boon, subject to federal land management and regulatory policy.
“Uintah County is certainly known for its vast resources of minerals. In fact, we are the top natural gas producing county in the state of Utah and number two in oil production. The vast majority of this production occurs on the over 1.3 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management,” Horrocks said. “The royalties generated from this production are of great benefit to our residents, providing things such as: improved roads, a public safety facility, community library, and recreational facilities.”
The royalties come with a catch—very little of the county’s millions of acres are in the county’s control, Horrocks said.
“Uintah County is a very large county. With over 2.8 million acres, the county is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Yet, only 15% is privately owned. Therefore, we urge the federal government to eliminate unnecessary regulations and promote domestic development of energy resources,” Horrocks added.
He pointed to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA)’s “multiple use and sustained yield” language, and Uintah County’s 2017 Resource Management Plan, that calls for the Interior Department to “expedite the processing, granting, and streamlining of mineral and energy leases and applications to drill, extract, and otherwise develop existing energy and mineral resources located within the Uintah Basin, including oil, natural gas, oil shale, oil sands, gilsonite, phosphate, gold, uranium, copper, solar, and wind resources.”
Horrocks compared the permitting issues with federal agencies to the streamlined processes at the state level, including the 260,000 acres of county lands held in trust and managed by the Utah Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
“Because of concerted efforts from SITLA and other state agencies, the amount of time it takes to permit an oil or gas well on SITLA property is significantly less than similar leases on federally managed lands,” Horrocks said.
Dave Ure, who sits on the SITLA board, said “If you don’t mine it and don’t grow it, there are no other new dollars coming into the system.”
Ure emphasized the necessity to “utilize our natural resources” but worried that the importance of hydrocarbons was being lost on young people in the educational system.
“Young people do not realize that the hydrocarbons are virtually involved in everything we do,” Ure said, in everything from electricity generation to the cell phones that they carry.