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Recapping history of natural gas issue in county

Staff reporter

Recent disputes between land and mineral rights owners and companies exploring for coal bed methane are only the latest issues to arise involving the resource in Carbon County.

During the years, methane gas has developed into one of the major industries in the area. Methane has gone from being a problem in coal mines, where it creates dangerous situations, to an asset the county has groomed as a revenue source.

In the late 1950s and mid-1960s, the idea of using the gas in mines for productive purposes was far from people's minds. In fact, a fight was going on between proponents of coal heat and individuals wanting to use natural gas in homes as well as businesses.

Questar predecessor Mountain Fuel Supply was in the mode of expanding service to small towns in the state away from the Wasatch Front. Fully, 90 percent of the homes and businesses in the Ogden-Salt Lake-Provo areas had been converted to gas since the end of World War II and the company was looking to grow in new markets.

Many small towns in Utah jumped on the bandwagon, tossing out coal furnaces and converting propane equipment to natural gas operated heating devices.

But Carbon County and, in particular, the Price city market at which Mountain Fuel was aiming its main thrust were different. The local area was significantly dependent on coal and the operations affiliated with the resource in the early 1960s.

While the large markets for coal werethe main consumer of the Carbon County resource, some people felt that changing to natural gas would reduce consumption and send a message that coal should not be the source of heat, thereby reducing the demand for the product.

Conversion to natural gas in the 1940s affected the coal industry since most of the supplies for homes and businesses along the Wasatch Front had been supplied from the Carbon-Emery area. The situation concerned residents who made their livings in the coal mining industry.

At the time, coalbed methane development in Carbon County was in its infancy. Supplies of natural gas that Mountain Fuel projected for the county were to be brought in from oil fields in the Uintah Basin and Wyoming.

In March 1966 after reviewing public opinion, the Price council adopted an ordinance that would eventually allow Mountain Fuel to put in lines and supply natural gas to customers within the city's boundaries.

The council published a statement after the meeting, commenting on the fact the debate had gone on for years.

"Our purpose in deferring the granting of a franchise to the gas company originally was to obtain a true picture of the will of the people, be it by a referendum election or by an impartial survey, which would reveal the opinion of the majority of the people," noted the council.

During the preceding months, the Price council had been contacted by hundreds of citizens voicing opinions. The officials felt the city had heard from enough people to make a decision and the decision was to grant the franchise.

"This (enactment), in effect, places the choice of use or nonuse of gas with each individual system," stated the council.

The vote was unanimous. But at the council meeting, a petition was submitted by the Price City Citizens Committee protesting a franchise. Members of the group informed the council that another petition with the correct number of signatures would be forthcoming to force a referendum on the issue.

Mayor Murray Mathis advised the group that, if the petition were filed within 30 days before the franchise took affect, a referendum would be conducted. He said it would take 352 signatures to put the matter on a ballot.

During the same time period , Mountain Fuel was trying to obtain an ordinance for a franchise in Helper. But Helper officials did not agree with provisions included in the company's franchise and rejected the proposal.

In the next month, the Price City Citizens Committee collected signatures and submitted a petition with almost 400 names, exceeding the percentage of the 3,245 registered voters in the city required to force a vote on the issue. The council, then had no choice but to suspend the franchise and set a date for a referendum which ended up taking place on July 12, 1966.

Based on newspaper accounts at the time, the issue became a hotly contested one in the area, with coal companies and many of their employees wanting to overturn the franchise decision. However, another group of people, entitled the Citizens Committee for Natural Gas supported the granting of the franchise. Both groups spent a lot of time and effort trying to get their viewpoints out to the community.

The emphasis of the anti-gas group was it's affect on the economy, that the gas was not a local product and that the move would send the wrong message about coal products.

The pro-gas groups suggested that not only did they feel natural gas was safer, but that individual citizens should have the right to choose which fuel they wanted to serve their needs. Some also pointed out that the coal that local residents and others used for heating residences and businesses was such a small percentage of the coal that was actually mined (with most of it being shipped to heavy industry) that the affect on the economy would be negligible.

The debate was hot and heavy, particularly in the last two weeks before the referendum in the city.

In the end, however, the vote for the installation of gas lines in the confines of Price City passed by an overwhelming majority with 1037 voters opting to put the franchise into affect and with only 475 against. It was apparent that almost all those that opposed the franchise had signed the initial petition, but the silent majority had not.

Mountain Fuel officials were delighted, while many coal mining spokesmen were pessimistic about what might happen. But it was the beginning of a new era and within very few years most of the houses in Price were heated with gas.

Over the ensuing decade, the use of gas increased dramatically in the entire area, with almost all new buildings and homes being fitted with gas appliances, particularly heating systems.

But natural gas did not come quickly to some areas; in fact some places in the county still heat with electricity, propane or coal out of necessity, not choice. Places such as Miller Creek and some parts of Coal Creek still use other types of fuel.

The later 1960s brought gas to Helper and to central Wellington. It wasn't until the early 1990s and the start up of the ECDC landfill that gas was put into the East Carbon area. And it has been less than two years since gas lines were laid to Kenilworth, in a deal that took county and resident involvement to make it happen.

Today most residents, even those who work in the coal mines, take natural gas supplies to their homes for granted. It is no longer the hot issue it once was as the mines produce more coal than they ever did, most of it used for power generation and shipped overseas for heavy industry.

But it still appears, that natural gas, in one form or another, and for one reason or another, will be the center of controversy in Carbon County for a very long time.

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