Utah Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus calls for historic investment in clean air initiatives

The bipartisan group has turned its sights toward big-ticket budget requests this session in an effort to address the state’s poor air quality.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune)Sen. Todd Weiler discusses the air quality legislation and appropriations requests during the 2021 General Session, along with the Utah Legislature's bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

It’s been nearly a decade since the Utah Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus turned its sights toward improving the state’s dirty air, and nearly all of the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked, Sen. Todd Weiler said on Wednesday.

That’s why the bipartisan group of state lawmakers has now shifted its focus to big budget requests for clean air initiatives they say would make a sizable dent in one of the state’s most persistently difficult issues.

“It gets harder and harder and more and more expensive, and so I think a lot of our focus has changed from bills to appropriation requests,” Weiler, R-Woods Cross, noted at a news conference on the steps of the state Capitol on Wednesday. “Because it takes money.”

The biggest funding request in this year’s legislative session comes from Gov. Spencer Cox, who recommended in a budget proposal he unveiled earlier this year that lawmakers spend $350 million to double-tracking FrontRunner in an effort to take cars off the road and reduce emissions.

If that funding is approved, as members of the Clean Air Caucus anticipate it will be, it would represent a historic investment in air quality unlike anything the state has ever seen, even as lawmakers have significantly increased spending to clean the skies in recent years.

State lawmakers funded a historic $28.7 million in air quality improvement projects in 2020, according to Cox’s budget book, though that number didn’t come close to the $100 million sought by his predecessor, former Gov. Gary Herbert. Spending topped $28 million in 2019, with initiatives that included promoting telecommuting in state offices, replacing polluting state vehicles and building vehicle charging stations at public facilities.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said he’s supportive of the $350 million appropriation for FrontRunner and is hopeful that it won’t sap interest in other investments in air quality initiatives this year.

Funding requests moving their way through the state Legislature for air quality this session include:

  • A $500,000 request from Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, to fund the Clean Air Retrofit, Replacement, and Off-road Technology (CARROT) Program. That program provides incentives for individuals, businesses and municipalities to swap out dirty vehicles and snow removal and lawn equipment “for cleaner options that reduce our air pollution and reduce emissions,” Harrison said Wednesday.

  • A request from Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, for $519,000 in one-time funding and $10,000 in ongoing funding to fund a Google Cloud platform for mobile air quality monitoring stations.

  • A $6 million request from Cox for electric vehicle charging stations in rural Utah.

  • An $80,000 request from Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, for mobile air quality monitoring in Salt Lake County. The money would be used to purchase, place and keep an eye on air quality monitors placed on three electric UTA buses that would “travel around for a year,” he said. “Because air quality in different parts of the valley we have found out can be different.”

Some of the air quality bills making their way through the Legislature this session include:

  • HB123, which would require the Division of Air Quality to study the feasibility of creating a state-level air quality and climate solutions laboratory. There’s been some talk, said Handy, the bill’s sponsor, that the facility could be placed at the former site of the Point of the Mountain Prison.

  • HB131, also sponsored by Handy, would require all state facilities to get a “good handle” on their utility efficiency costs and provide that information to the Division of Facilities Construction and Management in an effort “to better manage those,” he said.

  • HB145 would set a new goal that the state be powered by 50% renewable energy by the year 2030, as long as it’s cost effective. The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, says he thinks that’s a “realistic goal” as new technologies emerge and because the state’s utility providers are already head in that direction.

  • SB15, a proposal from Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, would ask the state Department of Human Resources to create teleworking options for eligible workers on bad air quality days.

  • SB146, a bill from Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, would make permanent a program requiring counties to have an emissions inspection program for certain diesel-powered vehicles.

The state’s air quality has improved in recent years, with statewide emissions declining overall by 27.3% from 2002 to 2017, according to Cox’s budget book. And all areas in the state now meet federal attainment standards for fine particulate PM 2.5.

But Utah continues to have some of the worst air in the country, a reality that has negative effects on residents that range from health impacts to educational challenges. A University of Utah study found in 2018 that air pollution was associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. And there is also evidence that there are more absences at schools across the Wasatch Front on bad air days.

Waldrip said Monday that there is “ample evidence” that air quality impacts health, children’s learning ability and the ability of Utah to attract jobs. And he said there’s a need for the Legislature to “create an atmosphere where we put an economic value on clean air.”

“If we have people coming into our state and we have a bad air day, they don’t come back,” he said. “We have to address this not only from a perspective of health and safety but also from [the] economic well-being of our state. And so many of these proposals go to that.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Steve Waldrip discusses the air quality legislation and appropriations requests during the 2021 General Session, along with the Utah Legislature's bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.