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Utah guv, Legislature may be headed for clash over dirty air

Published February 11, 2014 2:31 pm

Pollution politics • Lawmakers may be worried about approving heavy-handed rules.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For those days when the air in the Salt Lake Valley is murky enough that it stings the eyes and burns the lungs and kids are kept inside from recess, Nancy Schmaus set up an indoor-recess program at her children's school to let them work out the jitters and get some exercise.

It's a step she wishes she didn't have to take, but she recognizes it's too unhealthy for children, especially those with asthma or other problems, to play outside.

"It's a big concern, health-wise," said Schmaus, who is also active in the group Utah Moms for Clean Air. "We're an active family, and I think it makes it far less appealing to spend time outside when the air is disgusting and it's very visible. … I really just think you have to take some dramatic steps and you have to be brave and look out for the well-being of our entire community."

She's not alone.

On a recent Saturday, 4,000 people rallied at the Capitol calling for action to clean Utah's air. A recent poll by the University of Utah's business school found, next to education, Utahns consider it the second-most-pressing issue before the Legislature.

A survey by The Salt Lake Tribune found that, by a 3-to-1 margin, Utahns favor stricter air-quality standards for industry.

It was to that end that Gov. Gary Herbert made steps to clean Utah's air a focal point of his annual State of the State speech. He called for a ban on wood-burning stoves during the winter-inversion months — December through February — in areas of the state with the worst pollution and adoption of new standards for cleaner-burning gasoline and vehicles "as soon as possible."

And he says he may plow ahead with or without the backing of the Legislature.

"I don't think there's any question there will be a big benefit," said Robert Paine, a physician who leads the Program for Air Quality, Health and Society at the University of Utah. "I think there is tremendous enthusiasm for this two-pronged approach."

But the enthusiasm seems to have not registered with House and Senate Republican leaders, who are resisting Herbert's approach as too top-down and restrictive.

Heavy handed • "I could see the Legislature tackling the wood-burning stove issue after a thorough study of what's reasonable and maybe something short of just saying all the folks who have fireplaces in their homes, 'you're not going to be able to use them' " during inversion season, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund said. "That may be a little bit heavy-handed."

Lawmakers also are questioning whether Herbert's call for accelerating the fuel standards is practical, given the current technology.

Technically, the governor doesn't need the Legislature's backing, and Herbert said he has already directed the Division of Air Quality to start down the road of implementing rules to stop the wood-burning by next winter.

"The process has started. We hope to get [legislators] on board. Again, this is not a hard concern to understand," he said. "If, for some reason, they don't, the Division of Air Quality, I expect them to move ahead."

Herbert also has instructed the division to work with refineries on ways to accelerate the implementation of the cleaner-burning, low-sulfur Tier 3 gasoline.

Research cited by state and federal air officials points to quick, measurable improvements in Utah's murky winter air if the governor's policies are adopted.

U. researchers found that, on the days when the air is at its worst, wood-burning stoves may be responsible for between 5 and 15 percent of the pollution. Burning wood in a traditional fireplace for one hour emits as much PM 2.5 — the tiny particles that have been found to be harmful — as driving 1,150 miles.

But for some who own wood-burning stoves, the ban seems to be over-reaching.

"I've lived here since I was a little kid and it's been like this ever since I was little, and it's even been worse," Mike Van Valkenburg said of the air in Salt Lake County. "I remember one winter when we went for like 90 days without even being able to see the sun. … It just seems like the wood-burning part isn't going to change it that much. It seems like to take away our right to burn wood just doesn't seem right to me."

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, agrees that the ban Herbert is proposing, even on good air days, is probably too much.

"I'm not sure I'm willing to go that far," said Dee. He expects to see campaigns encouraging voluntary pollution reduction in the coming months. "I'd like to see where that goes before we start to see a mandate that someone doesn't burn a stove that is their sole source of heat."

Winter heat • There are an estimated 207 homes that rely solely on wood-burning for winter heat in the areas of the state with the most polluted air. They would not be exempt from the ban.

Moreover, Herbert says he would like to see the state offer an incentive to help those 200-plus homeowners replace their wood stoves with natural-gas furnaces.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, is sponsoring legislation — which Herbert supports — to encourage the conversion and said the incentive could make a big difference.

"The reason they're not converting [to gas] is they can't afford it," said Arent. "This is economics for these folks."

Arent's bill would also increase education and beef up enforcement. Through last year's inversion season, 16 citations were issued for violating the no-burn, "red-air" day ban. She expects that number to be higher this year.

But legislators are loathe to dictate policy, expressing concern that an outright prohibition on wood-burning during the winter months — even on those days when the air is pristine — seems to be an overreach.

Why even have a wood fireplace, asks Okerlund, if you can't use it in the only time of the year it serves a purpose?

Herbert said he understands the resistance.

"Others would say are we taking away somebody's liberty … and if that's their sole source of heat, how dare us?" Herbert said. "But times change. There was a time in our life we all burned leaves in our backyard. … What we did then we don't do today because we found that's not a good way to keep our air [clean]."

If the fix for wood-burning is straightforward, Herbert's proposal to accelerate the change to clean-burning, low-sulfur gasoline — called Tier 3 gas — is more complicated.

Clean fuel • There is little dispute the new fuels will be cleaner — up to 80 percent cleaner than the current fuel.

A report by the Environmental Protection Agency found that, nationwide, the seven counties that would benefit most from the adoption of the new gasoline standards are all in Utah — Box Elder, Cache, Weber, Davis, Tooele, Salt Lake and Utah counties.

But the EPA hasn't finalized its Tier 3 standards — they aren't expected until next month — and oil companies don't need to begin complying with the new rules until 2017. Left to market forces, it could be several years after that before the new gasoline hits pumps in Utah.

Utah's five refineries qualify for a small-refinery exemption that gives them three years to implement the new Tier 3 standards and oil companies have quotas only for low-sulfur gas that can be averaged nationwide, meaning it makes sense for them to focus on big markets first.

Lee Peacock, head of the Utah Petroleum Association, said it would be 2019 at the earliest before Utah refineries are required to adopt the new standard. And until the EPA finalizes its rule, it's way too soon to say with any certainty what the impact will be.

The petroleum industry, he said, estimates the change will mean a 9-cent-per-gallon increase at the pump. The Utah Division of Air Quality estimates it will only add a penny to the price.

"We all have the same goal. It's obviously important to us as an industry," said Peacock, who points out the refineries have spent huge sums to reduce emissions. "We're just trying to figure out if this program makes sense to try to implement early in Utah, as opposed to what the federal rules require."

It's unclear, Peacock said, whether Utah can force the refineries to speed up adoption of the new fuels.

And if they do, what about refineries in surrounding states that produce gasoline that is imported to Utah? Or those states that import fuel from Utah? Would they want to pay more for the new fuel?

"We're working with the governor's office and the Legislature," Peacock said, "to figure out what makes sense for Utah."

Legislators are reluctant to push the state out in front of the technology.

"The refineries, the industry, I'm not sure are prepared," said House Majority Assistant Whip Don Ipson, R-St. George. "In my mind, the cost to jump that small [distance], I don't think we could ever tell the difference. I think we have to be very careful what we do to put businesses at risk to mandate something that would cost the consumer

Paine, the U. doctor, said there is typically a lot of focus on the costs of solving pollution problems, but not enough about the price of pollution itself.

"The health issue should dominate," he said, "but when people start to talk about the practical side and 'Gee, can we afford to do this?' we should also look at can we afford not to do it?"

Indeed, Jeff Edwards from the Economic Development Corporation of Utah said as he talks to companies looking to expand or relocate, the quality of life is an important issue and air quality is part of that calculus.

"If we don't address air quality and do it soon, we're going to start losing opportunities for our kids," he said. "In my mind, it's a very appropriate role for government to make those hard decisions and say we have to make a trade-off here. Do we want to allow people to have their individual freedom to burn fire whenever they want, or is it in the better good of everyone not to allow that at certain times?"

All told there are nearly 20 pieces of air-quality legislation pending this session, and more likely in the coming weeks. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said everyone wants something done, but he wants to ensure whatever is done produces results.

"At the end of the day, I think the Legislature is going to take some leadership here on clean air, but we want to make sure what we do actually makes a difference," said Niederhauser, "that we're not just passing bills that sound good and do nothing."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke