Most of Utah’s candidates for governor believe humans are changing the climate

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The inversion looking west from Little Cottonwood Canyon, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.

Nearly all of Utah’s candidates for governor recognize that humans are contributing to the planet’s changing climate, a promising sign to environmental advocates that global warming is becoming less of a wedge issue.

Republican and Democratic rivals who completed a voter guide survey for The Salt Lake Tribune also articulated ambitious plans for purifying the air and decreasing emissions if they win the state’s highest executive post.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman wrote about adding charging stations to the state’s network, easing the “range anxiety” that discourages drivers from buying electric cars. Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton stressed the importance of getting older, more polluting cars off the road. And University of Utah professor Chris Peterson said he’d want to lead Utah toward a net-zero carbon future.

“We’re at this turning point, really, in terms of the carrying weight of the resources of this state,” said Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah, an environmental advocacy group. “And so we can’t be all driving our cars everywhere. We can’t all be living on quarter-acre lots. We can’t all be driving trucks.”

That’s why it’s critical for the state’s next governor to lead on emissions targets and in careful planning for the anticipated population boom, Williams added.

Only one candidate who participated in The Tribune’s survey said he didn’t believe human activity is causing climate change. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes wrote that saying people are causing the planet to warm “would suggest that absent any humans, the climate wouldn’t change. That is not the case.

“Can we be good stewards of the environment and adopt practices that prevent harming the environment?” he continued. “Of course. It isn’t a theory, it’s what we are doing now and what we must continue doing.”

Learn more about the gubernatorial candidates’ positions on the environment, health, education and taxes in The Salt Lake Tribune’s online voter guide, at www.sltrib.com/utah-governor-2020.

Williams said he was pleasantly surprised that the other candidates were comfortable acknowledging human involvement in climate change — just 10 years ago, the Utah Legislature passed a resolution that attributed concerns over global warming to “climate change alarmists” who were supposedly leading a conspiracy.

Since then, the sentiment of the Republican-dominated state leadership has shifted, and Williams said momentum for improving air quality and reducing emissions has built under the administration of Gov. Gary Herbert. Now, he said, it’s time to take the next steps.

Willing to set goals

While businessman Jeff Burningham said he does want to reduce emissions, he’s crystal clear about one thing: He wouldn’t do it by taxing carbon.

“I will veto any carbon tax legislation that comes to my desk,” Burningham said.

Emissions will continue to drop as people replace their older, more polluting cars with newer, cleaner models, he said. And the state could potentially remove thousands of vehicles from highways each day by permitting more employees to work from their homes, he added.

Jan Garbett, by contrast, said she would explore “instituting a carbon tax in conjunction with our neighboring states,” with the idea of providing a dividend for Utah families. She also said she would set a goal of reducing air pollution by 50% by 2026.

Huntsman noted that during his administration, he instituted a four-day workweek for state employees, estimating the initiative prevented upward of 24,000 round-trip commutes each week. That policy has been largely dismantled in recent years.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Travelers on I-80 in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.

Huntsman suggested that upgrading the engines for Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner trains should be part of the state’s plan, along with adding capacity to the state’s transit system. State leaders should also invest in the electric vehicle charging network — a priority also mentioned by Cox, who said these charging stations should be “as accessible as gasoline.”

Cox added that the state should convert its fleet to cleaner or electric vehicles and promote the less-polluting Tier 3 fuel that is now available at many Utah gas stations. His administration would set a goal of reducing overall emissions by 25% during his four-year term, he said.

Getting older, dirtier cars off the road is critical in improving air quality in Utah, since they are major contributors to tailpipe emissions in the Salt Lake Valley, Winder Newton said. She also highlighted the need to explore alternative solutions for heating and cooling buildings, which are expected by 2024 to overtake vehicles as the Utah’s primary source of wintertime pollution.

Former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said the state must invest in an efficient mass transit system and create walkable communities as a way of taking cars off the road. And Hughes said making sure growth isn’t confined to the Wasatch Front will help with emissions.

Democrat Zachary Moses is advocating for ending state investments in “dirty infrastructure,” while his primary rival, Peterson, said he wants to put the state on track to net-zero carbon emissions.

To that end, Peterson said he’d support tax incentives to encourage electric vehicle use, the development of wind and solar power plants in Utah and rooftop solar power investments by businesses, governments and residents.

While the Salt Lake City area has made strides in addressing its wintertime inversions, the region’s air quality is still ranked as some of the poorest in the nation. Dirty air has far-reaching effects, impacting public health, tourism and the broader economy, said Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership.

That’s why it’s important that the state’s next governor has specific targets for purifying the Utah skies, he said. “We want someone who is willing to set goals, who wants to achieve those goals, who’s willing to lead by example."

What happens to coal?

The candidates were all over the map on whether the state should pour funds into export terminals or other ways of transporting Utah’s coal to the international market. Cox, Burningham, Winder Newton and Hughes all expressed support for investments giving a strategic boost to the state’s coal industry.

Some even argued it would be good for the environment.

“Utah’s coal has less sulfur than coal from Australia and Indonesia. Lower sulfur, less emissions. Less emissions, cleaner air,” Hughes wrote in his response. “Coal exported from Utah will have a positive impact wherever it is used and will strengthen Utah’s economy.”

Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo Crews move coal at the Levan transfer facility along Interstate 15--south of Nephi where a steady flow of trucks unload it before it is transferred to train cars.

Similarly, Cox wrote that the more Utah coal is exported to other nations, “the healthier the environment will be across the globe.”

“When these markets transition to renewable energy sources, such as natural gas, Utah will be ready to meet these needs as well,” he added.

Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, wrote in an email that Utah’s next governor must fight for the ability to transport the state’s commodities overseas, even if it means challenging coastal cities that want to block export terminals.

“Extractive industries are the lifeblood of the economy in much of rural Utah,” Somers wrote. “They are among the largest private employers in many rural counties and pay family- and community-sustaining wages.”

But Moses was unequivocally against devoting state resources to help build an Oakland coal export terminal. Utah lawmakers have set aside upward of $53 million in public money for that terminal, estimated to cost $250 million, in an effort to shore up the coal industry, but that project has been bogged down in legal challenges and financial difficulties.

More ambiguous answers came from Huntsman and Wright, who said state government should carefully evaluate all spending and do all it can to diversify its economy. Huntsman said investing in a deep water terminal was an “audacious goal" on the part of state lawmakers but warned that the “headwinds against coal are strong.”

“There has been little interest from investors in coal port infrastructure,” he wrote. “Capital is a coward and investors around the world are reading the signs that show growing concern over the environmental impacts of coal.”

And Peterson said state leaders should put money toward a clean energy future, explaining that he supports solar, wind and geothermal power projects “especially in those communities hardest hit by the decreasing competitiveness of our coal industry.”

Somers agrees that the next governor should support economic development across the state but says it “should be an exercise in addition, not subtraction.”

“Any candidate who claims that extractive industries in rural Utah can be replaced by tourism and telework is promoting a false narrative,” he wrote.

But Williams notes that 24 cities across Utah have pledged to use renewable energy by 2030.

“That tells you," he said, “that popular opinion is that people want to get off of coal."