Robert Gehrke: Here’s how we can clean up the air in the Salt Lake Valley

Robert Gehrke

Let’s all take a deep breath. Now, remember what that feels like, because it will change as the air gets gunky as it always does in winter months.

Once the Salt Lake Valley inversion sets in that deep breath will taste very different, it will burn your lungs and make ordinary outdoor activities not just unpleasant. For those with respiratory issues, it can be dangerous.

Unlike the air on a January day, I want to be clear: Some positive steps have been taken to improve air quality. But it is an ongoing process and there is still more that must be done.

That, obviously, should start with enforcing the laws we already have put on the books.

Recently, Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens obtained documents from six municipalities in the Salt Lake Valley and found that bans on idling cars have almost never been enforced. In the past 10 months, just one driver has been cited for leaving his or her car running.

These ordinances matter because roughly half of all particulate emissions — the fine particles that lodge in the lungs and have serious health consequences — in the valley comes from tailpipe emissions.

It makes sense that the easiest way to reduce unnecessary emissions is to not leave a car running when it’s not being used.

Of course these anti-idling ordinances are symbolic, to some degree, to make drivers more aware of the impacts of their small decisions. We’re not looking to lock people up. At the same time, if we’re not enforcing the laws we have, they have no deterrent effect and there’s not much point in having the ordinances on the book.

So actually issuing citations now and then seems like an obvious place to start, but there is a lot more that can be done.

This week, the Utah Foundation issued a report about steps the state could take to accelerate alternative fuel vehicles and, consequently, improve air quality.

For example, it noted that Utah lawmakers recently let a $1,000 incentive for electric car purchases expire. These incentives work, and could have an even larger impact if the amounts were larger and could be applied at the time of sale.

Perhaps the most important thing the state can do to encourage electric vehicle usage is investing in more charging stations. The Utah Foundation report cited a survey that found that more than 60% of car buyers said making it easier to charge up would increase the likelihood they would buy an electric car.

It could also make sense for the state to incentivize trading in older, dirtier cars for traditional vehicles. Here’s why: Beginning next year, Utah refineries are expected to begin selling Tier III gasoline. This has been the Holy Grail for clean air advocates for years.

That’s because it burns cleaner in all cars, but it’s much, much cleaner — up to 80% cleaner — in cars built after 2018.

“It won’t be like flipping a switch overnight. It won’t be suddenly everything will be blue skies,” said Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, “but it will make a significant difference.”

We have seen these sorts of incentive programs work.

In 2017, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, was able to get a piece of the settlement from the Volkswagen emissions-rigging settlement earmarked to help school districts replace their old diesel buses with either clean diesel or natural gas buses.

That $7.5 million has been matched with money from the districts and resulted in 115 school buses being replaced with cleaner buses all across the state — 34 buses in the Davis district alone, 20 in Alpine, 18 in Cache, a dozen in Jordan.

It’s a big deal because every one of those big, old diesel vehicles burns as much fuel — and emits as much pollution — as 26 passenger cars. That’s a big bang for the buck and we should build on that with more money in the upcoming session to prod cities, counties, schools and perhaps even businesses to keep moving in that direction.

And we need to keep moving in that direction on this and other fronts because cleaning the valley’s air is a journey, one that will become more and more challenging as our population continues to explode.