A new proposal could be the boldest Utah has seen to clean up our air. The surprise, says Robert Gehrke, is who is sponsoring it.

New bill would seek to cut air pollution in Utah by half by taking some aggressive measures that past Republican lawmakers have opposed.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A winter inversion is photographed Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, looking west from Little Cottonwood Canyon.

At the Utah Legislature, the climate may finally be changing on climate change — or at least some lawmakers in the Republican majority are getting serious about reducing pollution along the Wasatch Front.

No matter how you package it, the two invariably go hand-in-hand, with benefits for both.

So it was a pleasant surprise when Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore announced on Tuesday he would sponsor what is likely the most ambitious and sweeping clean air bill the Utah Legislature has seen.

Cullimore’s proposal — developed with the nonprofit O2 Utah, founded by former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate David Garbett — would seek to cut harmful pollutants in half by 2030. To do it, Cullimore is entertaining ideas that might not fly among some of his Republican colleagues and floating big ideas that were steadfastly resisted by the Utah Legislature a decade ago.

For example, he wants to reduce auto emissions by implementing tiered pricing for vehicle registrations — cleaner cars would pay less to register, the most polluting automobiles would pay more.

It’s a good idea that takes aim at tailpipes — the source of roughly half of the air pollutants in a typical inversion — and attempts in some measure to attach a price to the pollution.

A drawback is that many who drive older, dirtier cars aren’t doing it by choice. They simply can’t afford to upgrade. So Cullimore is embracing a proposal by Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, to run a sort of state-level “Cash-For-Clunkers” program.

Stenquist’s House Bill 176 last year would have allowed anyone who lives in a nonattainment area for air quality and owns a car built before 2003, or a vehicle that failed an emissions inspection, to receive up to $5,500 (depending on their income) toward the purchase of a low-emission or zero-emission vehicle.

Cullimore also said he hopes to push the expansion of cleaner-burning Tier 3 gasoline.

The senator wants to impose new building standards for new homes and commercial structures — the source of 39% of our pollution — that improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions. He also wants to provide incentives to retrofit older buildings to make them more efficient, like the state tried to do with an incentive to replace wood-burning stoves.

Perhaps most surprisingly, he said he would push for a “simplified cap-and-trade permitting system” for large industrial polluters. While the details are still vague, presumably, it would put a ceiling on the amount of pollutants that can be emitted and require any new emissions to be offset by other improvements.

More than any other of the proposals, even flirting with cap-and-trade shows how far Utah Republicans have come. Back in 2007, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman signed Utah onto the Western Climate Initiative, a group of Western states and Canadian provinces that agreed to a cap-and-trade system.

Republican legislators at the time passed resolutions demanding the state withdraw from the accord and enacted legislation to hinder unilateral climate action by the governor. In 2011, Utah and several other Western states withdrew from the initiative.

Cullimore also wants to establish an air quality research unit at the University of Utah and a fund to help pay for asthma expenses exacerbated by Utah’s poor air quality.

All of this is going to cost money, potentially quite a bit of money, and Cullimore is counting on the Biden Administration getting climate and infrastructure legislation across the finish line to help pay for some of it.

“This upcoming session we’re likely to see significant federal funds,” he said during Tuesday’s news conference. “A lot of these federal funds are going to have earmarks and parameters, and we anticipate a lot of those parameters will allow us to use these funds to address air quality and environmental concerns.”

The benefits of advancing an ambitious air quality plan are obvious. A study released last year by Isabella Errigo and a team of Brigham Young University scientists found that Utahns could be losing roughly two years on their life expectancies due to poor air quality. And pollution is costing Utah’s economy in the neighborhood of $2 billion a year in health care expenses, lost work time and indirect costs, like lost tourism and decreased growth.

Now, I’ve criticized Cullimore in the past for appearing to use his position in the Legislature to write laws that help landlords evict renters and, in turn, help his father’s law firm, which handles more evictions than any other firm in the state. His emergence as a leader on air quality and climate issues doesn’t erase any of those concerns.

But for too long, the issue of air quality had been a focus for Democrats like Reps. Patrice Arent and Joel Briscoe. It’s refreshing to see over the last several years Republicans like Reps. Stenquist, Ray Ward and Stephen Handy and Sen. Todd Weiler advancing the cause.

With Cullimore joining the cause, there is a Republican with a leadership position joining the fight and thinking big. Maybe it’s too big for some of his GOP colleagues, but embracing such an ambitious plan offers the potential to reframe how the Legislature approaches Utah’s climate challenges and push the body to take some significant steps toward improving the air we breathe.