Lawmakers consider bills to help Utahns replace their old polluting cars, wood stoves and snowblowers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Refinery row in North Salt Lake is obscured by poor air quality Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Fewer than one-fifth of the cars and trucks motoring along the Wasatch Front account for more than three-fifths of the vehicle emissions that are blamed for a large share of the air quality problems looming over the urban corridor where 90 percent of Utahns live.

This is because an older Tier 1 car emits 30 times more pollution than a new Tier 3 model, according to Glade Sowards, a policy analyst with the Utah Division of Air Quality.

“Getting rid of one Tier 1 vehicle makes room for 30 Tier 3 vehicles,” he said. “If you can get [drivers] into a properly functioning Tier 2 or 3 car, it might be money better spent than getting a dirty vehicle to limp along for another few years.”

On a $100 million raft of bills rolling through Utah’s legislative session with bipartisan backing is HB295, which aims to usher model year cars 2003 or older off the streets and into the wrecking yard. The bill would provide $5.2 million to help lower-income residents replace older, dirtier cars with a newer ride.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“A lot of these cars are just going to die off anyway,” sponsoring Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Monday. “This program just helps push that process along a little bit faster and help a few people make that decision.”

The committee, which advanced that bill in an 8-4 vote, heard two other measures Wednesday that offer incentives to Wasatch Front residents to adjust their behavior in ways that reduce emissions.

Unanimously advanced were Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe’s HB353, which sets aside $1.2 million to cover 17 free-fare days on public transit for three years, and a $14 million subsidy to encourage residents to replace wood-burning stoves.

HB357 from Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, would help homeowners who rely on wood for heat to switch to cleaner heat sources. According to University of Utah research, wood smoke is a leading source of direct particulate pollution, accounting for 14 percent of the crud trapped near the ground during wintertime inversions.

These three and 12 other bills and appropriation requests seek to tap into the $100 million investment Utah Gov. Gary Herbert proposes toward cleaning up the state’s airsheds, which are burdened with high levels of small particulate matter, or PM2.5, and ozone.

Hawkes’ wood-stove proposal is expected to block 1,000 tons of pollution from entering the atmosphere. Though wood-burning is not nearly as widespread as driving, the bill is expected to have a strong “return on investment” because wood stoves are often operated as inversions build and their smoke is thick with lung-inflaming particulates, according to the governor’s Air Quality Policy Advisory Board.

HB357 would cover 70 percent of residents’ cost to replace their wood-burning device or fireplace with a heating appliance powered by natural gas, propane or electricity. It lays out three criteria for prioritizing eligibility for the program.

“There is preference for people who are 250 percent or less than the federal poverty level, and they live in a house where wood is the sole or supplemental source of heat,” Hawkes explained. Participants must live within six miles of the Great Salt Lake Meridian, the line running the length of the Salt Lake Valley along Main Street.

“This is ground zero of the source of problem in terms of homes of a certain age, also people with income challenges where they might be burning for heat,” Hawkes said. “It really is designed to not just change any person who wants out, but those people who are in the greatest need where we can have the greatest impact.”

Efforts to ban wood burning altogether have generated fierce resistance, so Utah lawmakers see voluntary conversion programs like the ones championed by Hawkes, Stenquist and Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, as more politically palatable options.

Such measures carry steep price tags, but they are worth it considering the harm bad air inflicts on public health and the state’s economy, according to Harrison.

“This pollution not only sends us to the hospital, it is killing us," Harrison said. “Medical evidence estimates that between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns die prematurely just due to air pollution.”

She is seeking a $3.7 million appropriation to provide an 80 percent match for residents who replace gasoline snowblowers, leaf blowers and lawn mowers with electric models.

Other measures this session call for spending $25 million to replace pre-2007 state vehicles; $2.1 million to help railroads upgrade “freight switcher” locomotives; $15 million to subsidize replacement of heavy equipment in the private sector; $5.8 million to install electric-vehicle chargers at state offices; $5 million in matching grants for businesses to install chargers for customers and employees to use; and $1.5 million to incentivize innovative solutions.

But wood-stove conversion has been identified as the highest priority by the air quality advisory panel.

"It gives us the best bang for the buck, so it’s one of the better ones,” said Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, who sits on the advisory panel. Other speakers at Wednesday’s hearing said smoke from one stove is equivalent to the emissions from 1,500 to 3,000 gas furnaces, each producing an equivalent amount of heat as the wood stove. Retiring one stove used to heat a home would have the same impact as replacing five old diesel buses, according to the Salt Lake Chamber.

“Clean air efforts are always incremental,” said Nickie Nelson, of the League of Women Voters of Utah. HB357 is a “pathway for reducing a significant source of small particulate as well as provide assistance to Utahns who may not be able to afford an upgrade to their heating system.”

Of the 15 emission-reduction measures under consideration this session, Stenquist’s vehicle-replacement bill weighs in at around No. 6 in terms of positive impact, Albrecht said.

This proposal would get 1,350 old cars off the road with cash rebates worth up to $5,500, depending on the car owner’s income, according to the HB295 sponsor.

“These are the dirtiest of the cars,” Stenquist said. “It’s a very good return on investment in terms of cost per ton.”

The program, which leverages a federal match, will prevent the release of 520 tons of pollution into the air above the Wasatch Front at a cost to the state of $10,000 for each ton, according to a DAQ analysis.

Stenquist noted that Salt Lake City’s air, which remains out of attainment for federal standards on PM2.5, is actually as clean as it’s been in decades despite population growth and increases in miles driven. This is because vehicles, which now account for 42 percent of emissions, have become less polluting as technology improves.

HB295’s total price tag is $6.5 million, setting aside some money to educate the public about the program and gather data to understand its effectiveness.

Supporters include SLC Air Protectors and the Utah Petroleum Association, groups that don’t typically see eye to eye, as well as the community engagement group Action Utah and the Used Automobile Dealers Association.

“It does focus on the right place, the right cars and the right income of people who need that transportation,” the association’s executive director, Wayne Jones, told lawmakers. “This is not a ‘cash for clunkers’ program. That program was harmful to the automotive industry, particularly to consumers, that took a lot of good vehicles off the road that might not need to come off.”