Will oil and gas foxes be watching Utah’s air quality henhouse? Robert Gehrke asks

Cox’s willingness to let drillers dictate ozone policy shows how it will go if pollution regulators join Department of Natural Resources.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The choking smoke we’ve all endured for the last several weeks isn’t Utah’s only summer air quality problem.

Back in 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted that parts of Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Tooele counties were not meeting federal ozone standards.

Ozone mixes with other emissions and can be corrosive, burning the lungs and causing health problems, especially for those who already have health issues.

So the EPA gave Utah three years to do what needed to be done to get back into compliance. Utah industry groups leapt into action.

Not to reduce emissions. Heavens no. As my colleague Zak Podmore reported last week, these groups launched a full-court press to convince state lawmakers that emissions from China — thousands of miles away — were to blame for Utah’s deficient air.

Records obtained by environmental groups show that the Utah Petroleum Association and the Utah Mining Association hired consultants whose models blame China for as much as 10% of Utah’s ozone pollution.

Then these industry officials penned a letter that was signed by then-Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and other Republicans and sent to EPA in December asserting that, were it not for Asian emissions, Utah would meet the EPA’s standards.

That in spite of the fact that staff with the Utah Division of Air Quality said there was no evidence to support the claims of the industry organization or the letter.

The division wrote that it “cannot find evidence of significant international transport during high ozone days,” and it later said the international effect was “quite low” and that attempts to prove otherwise had been “futile.”

Nonetheless, in May Cox sent another letter to EPA, this time including a 198-page document relying heavily on the industry-funded consultants’ work arguing China was to blame for Utah’s bad air.

The EPA has not decided whether to accept the industry’s argument. If it does, Utah may be allowed to continue to exceed air quality standards — an obvious win for the industry groups.

I read this reporting with interest, in part because it shows the extent of the influence mining and oil and gas interests have had and continue to have over the governor’s office.

Moreover, it provides some interesting context for another discussion taking place in the governor’s office — one that hasn’t received much attention but could significantly undermine the authority and independence of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Back in January a plan surfaced to have DEQ (including the Division of Air Quality) absorbed into the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees mining and so forth.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, was watered down by the time it passed, directing the governor’s office to initiate a process aimed at potentially streamlining and improving coordination between the two departments.

Over the last several weeks, Cox’s budget office has held a series of “listening meetings” to gather input from the public about how to improve efficiency. The meetings have been sparsely attended, usually with just two or three people participating at each and some with nobody showing up.

But make no mistake: This matters, and it matters for the very reason the story of industries ozone offensive illustrates above.

There is a natural tension between the Department of Natural Resources’ role permitting — and frequently advocating on behalf of — extractive industries and aiding farmers and ranchers and the Department of Environmental Quality’s mission to preserve the air Utahns breathe and the water we drink.

That tension is a good thing. The two departments come at issues from different perspectives, both of which need to be heard and weighed when making policy. But moving DEQ under the director of natural resources would spoil that balance and mean only one viewpoint is considered.

“I think this is a really good case study of why there are conflicts between what industry wants and what’s best for the citizens of Utah in terms of air quality,” said Scott Williams, executive director of the environmental group HEAL Utah.

Combining the two leaves it to the department director who has “competing political constituencies” to decide which viewpoints are represented, Williams said. Not to mention that industry makes a lot of political contributions that can sway the way issues are presented.

What happens, for example, when the interests of farmers and ranchers want access to water flowing into the Great Salt Lake are pitted against the continued health of the lake and people who live nearby?

Williams likened it to the experience of Dr. Angela Dunn in the Health Department, where she offered advice to officials on the state’s coronavirus response, but she expressed frustration after leaving the department that, when it came time to make a decision, nobody with medical expertise was in the room.

The governors budget office will make a recommendation on the potential consolidation to the Legislature sometime in October.

And while I recognize rejiggering a couple state agencies isn’t the kind of thing that gets people riled up, it will be important for Utahns to engage on this and let the governor and the Legislature know how we feel.

Because if we value breathing clean air, drinking pure water and having our radioactive waste safely regulated, we need someone in Gov. Cox’s cabinet meetings with the experience and expertise to represent the public’s interest on these critical issues.