By BRIAN MAFFLY | The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published Mar 18 2016 07:06AM
The Utah Legislature last week approved a $53 million investment in an Oakland, Calif., export terminal, but the state's coal-shipping aspirations may still be just a dream.
So far, Utah is the only entity that may pledge money toward building a $275 million bulk-freight terminal at the deep-water port under construction at the site of the former Oakland Army Base.
But Utah wouldn't pay up until $200 million in private financing is secured — and the identity of those investors and the status of their contributions is unknown.
Another hurdle: Utah's money wouldn't be released until the four rural Utah counties borrowing it for the investment have a plan to pay it back if the terminal can't move coal profitably. No plan has been offered.
Then there's opposition to overcome in California — the hoped-for source of more taxpayer money and construction permits.
Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, is asking her state's transportation officials to withhold further public funding from the larger, $1.2 billion project of converting the military base into a port until questions about the coal-exporting terminal are resolved.
The California Transportation Commission has pledged $176 million to the broader port project so far, but Hancock suspects a coal terminal may violate the intent of the California ballot initiative that set aside billions with the aim of reducing pollution.
Hancock said she supports the terminal, but only if it does not move fossil fuels. She's introduced four bills that would restrict the transport of coal through California. Oakland city officials and others also oppose the coal shipping plan.
'House of cards'? • The coal-producing Utah counties of Carbon, Sevier, Sanpete and Emery initially secured a loan from Utah's Permanent Community Impact Fund to invest $50 million in the proposed terminal, in exchange for 49 percent of its 9.5-million-metric-ton loading capacity.
However, the Utah Attorney General's Office apparently declined to sign off on the loan, necessitating last week's passage of SB246 as a legal workaround.
Normally, money from the fund — derived from federal mineral royalties — is spent on civic projects in the counties where mining and drilling occur. But in recent years, county commissioners who run the Community Impact Board (CIB) have become interested in funding grander projects that would deliver commodities to market.
SB246, which Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign, circumvented limits on how counties may spend revenues from the fund. It cycles community impact revenue — critics call it "laundering" — through the state Transportation Fund and back to the CIB in a new pool of money known as the "Throughput Infrastructure Fund," which also can be tapped to build transmission lines, pipelines and rail.
When the CIB first approved the loan in April 2015, it included an additional $3 million to cover administrative costs — such as paying consultants like Jeff Holt, a former Utah Transportation Commission chairman who brokered the deal between the counties and the CIB.
The CIB's approval was premised on Holt's claim that the $200 million in private financing needed to build the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal would be secured by June 2015.
"This benchmark has been missed. That means the only player in this transaction with an open checkbook and a deep pocket is the state of Utah," said critic Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
"It's a house of cards built on public funding from various places," said Hancock, the California lawmaker. "This is a giveaway of public money for purposes for which it was not intended. ... Utah's money would go to a coal facility which would require more investment and local permits that it might not get. This is not a done deal in California. I think litigation is inevitable."
'A lot of interest' • During debate on SB246, critics argued that global demand for coal is tanking and the state is risking flushing millions in a vain attempt to save a moribund extractive industry. Coal exports were down 22 percent in the first three quarters of 2015 compared with the same period in 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
Utah lawmakers remained undaunted.
"There are many investors that wish they were ahead of us in line. Others have invested in this project because they feel it has validity," said bill sponsor Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, during Senate debate.
In an interview, Adams could not identify any of these investors. Nor could Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter, a key proponent of Utah's participation, though he noted: "There is a lot of interest. Even if we don't put money in, it will get built."
Canada-based BMO Capital Markets, Holt's employer, is packaging the needed $200 million in private investment as unrated debt to be sold to pension funds, according to Potter. Bank officials could not be reached for comment.
The terminal plan also calls for a final $25 million investment of taxpayer funds from California.
Holt has previously served on the CIB, and was chairman of the Utah Transportation Commission before he stepped down three months ago when BMO relocated him to the East Coast.
The investment banker is also acting as an adviser to Sevier County on a proposed short-haul rail project that complements the export terminal. The 43-mile Central Utah Rail would tie the Sufco Mine to a coal load-out near Levan on the Union Pacific line, serving direct access to Bay Area ports.
Holt did not return an emailed request for comment.
'It's not a misuse' • Backers of SB246 say the port investment is vital for the future of central Utah, where coal mining and power generation account for 80 percent of employment.
"This helps us shore up our community," Potter told lawmakers. "It gives the coal industry an opportunity to grow and adapt into the future. It's not a misuse of tax dollars."
The counties could use the port to move other commodities, such as soda ash, potash and salt, he added.
Once SB246 is enacted, the state will park the $53 million in an account. It won't be released until the counties have submitted plans for repaying it and the additional private funding is secured, said Nate McDonald, spokesman for the Department of Workforce Services, CIB's parent agency.
The counties would have 30 years to pay back the loan at 2 percent interest.
And SB246 would offer them a key loophole — the CIB may restructure or forgive all or part of a local entity's inability to repay loans due to "extenuating circumstances."
Sanzillo contends that provision was added to shift the risk.
"The local governments are saying, 'There is risk and we are unwilling to bear it,' so the politicians are saying, 'Let the CIB take the hit,' " said Sanzillo, who formerly served as a deputy comptroller for New York state.
"The changes recognize the risk and move it from something that looks like a loan to something that looks like a sham transaction," he said. "They call it a loan, but there is little requirement that it be paid back, and that's a misuse of state and federal resources."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.