Bill targeting emissions from old cars amended to promote hydrocarbon highways

Bait and switch? Environmentalists argue SB51 poses a misuse of federal mineral royalties.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune A BLM sign competes with oil wells for attention along the Nine Mile Canyon National Backcountry Byway in Duchesne County, Tuesday January 19, 2016.

On its face, Sen. Wayne Harper’s SB51 is the kind of bill few would oppose. It looks to close a loophole that allows many older cars and trucks to qualify as “vintage” vehicles, exempt from emissions testing requirements.

Currently, vehicles manufactured before 1991 are not subject to emission inspections under the logic that such a vehicle is a collectors’ item that rarely leaves the garage. SB51 would require the owners to demonstrate that their older vehicles, which emit far more pollution than newer ones, deserve vintage status before qualifying for the exemption.

But last week, without much explanation, Harper, a Taylorsville Republican, replaced the bill with a substitute that does something else entirely: amend the state’s so-called Throughput Infrastructure Fund so it can be used toward “a highway used primarily for the transportation of hydrocarbons.”

Say what? What’s that got to do with vintage automobiles?

Almost nothing and the environmental community was quick to see something sneaky and untoward, like a backdoor attempt to fund a controversial highway proposed through Utah’s scenic Book Cliffs, connecting the Uinta Basin oil patch with Interstate 70.

“It seems that the Legislature is planning to greenlight the use of Throughput Infrastructure Fund money to build roads for the fossil fuel industry. This money, which was ‘laundered’ by the Legislature, originated as federal Mineral Lease Act funds which are supposed to be used to mitigate the impact of fossil fuel development, not to help the fossil fuel industry,” said Deeda Seed, a Utah-based organizer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This would be an appalling and highly questionable use of these funds.”

At the Feb. 3 meeting of the House Transportation Committee, Harper said that officials from the Uinta Basin want to tap the infrastructure fund to fix roads being chewed up by oil tankers.

“When the roads fail, you have more wear and tear, you have more emissions,” Harper said. “Could you use those excess funds to repair those roads? And we’re clarifying that you can.”

Missing from Harper’s presentation was critical background. The Legislature in 2018 established the infrastructure fund with $53 million in federal mineral royalties extracted from the Permanent Community Impact Fund, commonly called the CIB. The fund is intended to support the construction of big projects that move Utah mineral commodities to market, and the Legislature gave priority to a “bulk commodities ocean terminal.”

At the time Utah was looking to partner with developers in Oakland, Calif., to build a rail-to-ship coal-loading terminal on the San Francisco Bay waterfront. Mired in controversy and litigation, the coal-handling components of that project are no longer possible under a deal last week resolving lawsuits between the port developers and the city of Oakland. The developers agreed to move forward on the project without coal, as Oakland officials have been demanding for several years.

The demise of a coal terminal in Oakland frees up the $53 million to be spent on something else geared toward mineral transportation. The throughput fund’s enabling legislation in 2016, SB246, identifies pipelines, railroads and transmission lines as potential recipients, but it did not specify roads and highways.

SB51, which passed the Senate unanimously on Jan. 19, would clear the way for these funds to be used on conventional roads, even though they already enjoy ample funding from federal and state tax dollars. In the meantime, it is House Rules Committee awaiting a fiscal note before seeing action on the House floor.

The classic car provisions are still in the bill and, if it passes, Wasatch Front residents who drive older cars may soon be headed to an emission testing shop or a junkyard.

Older cars and trucks spew out a disproportionate load of pollution from their tailpipes because emission control systems prior to 1980 are far less effective than they are after 1980, according to Harper.

“They get a vintage plate, and in doing so, they bypass emissions,” he said. Utah law defines a vintage automobile as one that is more than 30 years old and is “primarily a collector’s item” driven for exhibitions, parades and occasional recreational use; in other words, not for everyday travel.

Yet thousands of 1980s-era vehicles are driven routinely in Utah’s urban counties that struggle with unhealthy levels of ozone and particulate matter.

Under SB51, vehicles manufactured after 1980 would be required to pass emission inspections unless they are insured under a classic automobile policy. That doesn’t necessarily mean these vehicles must emit no more pollution than a contemporary car, but rather their stock emission-control should be in proper working order. There are 16,700 vehicles manufactured between 1981 and 1990 registered in Utah counties that are out of attainment for air quality standards, according to Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

“It is important to have these vehicles inspected and making sure the catalytic converter is working,” Bird said, “especially if they are being used as a daily driver.”

However, Bird estimated that about 7,000 of these pre-1990 vehicles are registered as vintage and would not likely be subject to SB51′s inspection requirement.