Utah legislator proposes state defense fund against environmentalists

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Utah legislator proposes state defense fund against environmentalists

SALT LAKE CITY -- A Southern Utah lawmaker wants the state to be prepared to fight back when anticipated environmental battles arise.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said he will run legislation during the 2014 session that would create an environmental defense fund in anticipation of looming court fights with environmentalists.

He anticipates conflict over sage grouse, as well as the beardtongue flower, which grows over oil shale areas and which some claim may be put on the protected species list -- potentially shutting down access to the oil shale.

Lobbyist Jeff Hartley, who represents several companies with energy interests in Utah, predicted the state's preparation and willingness to address environmental issues will be heavily weighed when companies consider coming to the Beehive State in search of oil or gas leases.

"My concern is that the state is inadequately prepared to defend its interests," he said.

Hartley said the defense fund could help pay for data collection on a number of key environmental issues as a means of readiness.

Hinkins reminded members of a legislative appropriations committee on Tuesday that the Legislature funded $500,000 to study the sage grouse issue.

He said, given the current trend, if the federal government comes up with more endangered species classifications, the future of Southern Utah is threatened.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, pointed out the Legislature has already set up a constitutional defense fund and wondered if it would be willing to set up another specialized fund.

"Your problems are different than my problems," Hinkins shot back at the urban legislator. "You have too many people, and we're losing too many."

Hinkins pointed out that current environmental issues with coal have cost jobs in his district.

"We're losing jobs. We're losing our industry. I think we're just killing ourselves," he said.

Unless Utah fights back, Hartley said, industries will get a signal that it's not worth the time or money to pursue oil or gas leases in the state.

"What it boils down to is this: Companies will take their capital and move it elsewhere."