Commentary: We can do more about Utah’s air pollution

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Hazy scene of downtown Salt Lake City at 9:30 a.m. Friday Dec. 4 a few blocks north of the the Utah State Capitol. Air quality was in the yellow range.

Now that the winter inversions have set in along the Wasatch Front, it is useful to review what was accomplished during the past year to solve the problem and what still needs to be done both in the short and the long terms.

The projection that Utah’s population will double by 2065, mostly along the Wasatch Front, emphasizes the need for effective action because we must reduce the rate at which individuals pollute enough to offset the increase in vehicle traffic and emissions from buildings that will accompany this population growth. Several positive steps provide hope.

The 2017 Utah Legislature extended the tax credit for wind and solar renewable energy installations in homes and businesses. Cleaner Tier 3 fuels will be produced by several refineries in Utah by 2019. Electric vehicle sales in Utah are increasing, but are still less than 1 percent of vehicle sales. Salt Lake City and other Utah cities are leading the way in the Clean Cities program and increasing renewable energy sources in public and private buildings. The Legislature also passed a joint resolution, HCR 18, urging car buyers to consider smog ratings when buying a car.

On the negative side, Utah is not meeting EPA standards for ozone and PM2.5 pollutants. This will require a new State Implementation Plan (SIP) to be approved by the EPA in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Legislature did not renew the tax credit for purchase of electric vehicles. A great concern for the future of air pollution caused by vehicles is that SUV and small truck sales were at 67 percent of all new vehicles sold in Utah in 2016. And this percent had increased to 70 percent of sales in the first half of 2017. This indicates that Utah citizens often do not associate their purchase of gas-guzzling vehicles with an increase in carbon and pollution emissions. This must change.

In 2016, the Legislature missed an opportunity to pass strong building code updates that would have greatly increased the energy efficiency of new homes in Utah.

Previously, the Utah Citizens’ Counsel has also recommended that the state of Utah reduce its highway speed limits and then enforce the lower limits. Utah’s increased speed limits of 70 mph in urban areas, with many drivers speeding at 75 to 80 mph, has not only contributed to the increased accident and death rates but also increased gas consumption per mile by as much as 20 percent over that obtained when driving in the 50–60 mph range.

Advances in wireless and automotive technology would easily allow safe speed limits, dynamically adjusted for weather, air pollution and road conditions. The cost of such changes in new cars would be trivial in comparison to the technology required and being developed for self-driving cars.

We are aware of two important air pollution bills in the pipeline for the 2018 legislative session that the UCC supports. HB 101, sponsored by state Sens. Patrice Arent and Curt Bramble, would mandate emission testing on diesel vehicles in all counties that have emission testing programs. A House Bill sponsored by Steve Eliason, titled “Zero Emission Vehicle Program,” would increase consumer access to electric vehicles and ultimately reduce their cost by requiring that a percentage of new vehicles shipped to Utah dealers be zero emission vehicles.

Together, the Legislature, the media, and the citizenry must keep advancing ways to reduce air pollution to reduce the health damage it causes to Utahns, young and old.

University of Utah Professor of Biology David Carrier speaks as the Utah Citizens' Counsel announces its 2014 Assessment of Utah's Policy Progress in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014.

David Carrier, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at the University of Utah and works with the Utah Citzens Council as a facilitator and researches Utah water issues and global warming.

Andy Schoenberg

Andy Schoenberg, Ph.D., is a former NASA aerospace engineer and retired bioengineering professor at the University of Utah. His concern about improving air quality in Utah led to the development of a solar powered zero emissions vehicle.

Both are members of the Utah Citizens Counsel, an independent, non-partisan group of senior community advocates dedicated to improving public policy on complex issues through dialogue, creative problem solving, and consensus building.

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