Commentary: Conservatives reclaim environmental mantle with renewable natural gas plan

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Steve Handy makes a few remarks during the ceremony marking the return of the bell from the USS Utah, one of the first ships lost during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The refurbished bell is back on display in the Naval Science building at the university along with a few artifacts recovered from the ship.

When you look back at the past decade of energy and environmental policy in America, it’s hard to fully comprehend how quickly things have changed for the better.

Our dangerous dependence on foreign energy sources is gone, we have led the world in reducing our carbon emissions and renewables like wind and solar are rapidly expanding on the power grid — all in the space of 10 years.

There are many factors behind this rapid change, but when you step back to look at the big picture, there’s a common theme: Private sector innovation and smart public policy are working together to develop homegrown sources of energy under the world’s toughest environmental standards.

Rest assured, this isn’t a mandate coming from Congress or a big federal agency. Instead, it’s the work of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, elected officials, public servants and concerned citizens in state capitals and communities all across the country.

For a local example, look no further than H.B. 107, a bill currently before the Utah Legislature.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, the bill supports the production of renewable natural gas as a transportation fuel to put cleaner cars and trucks on the road. Handy has a long record of supporting investments in alternative transportation fuels like natural gas and electricity to improve air quality along the Wasatch Front — including the purchase of more than 100 clean fuel school buses.

Handy’s bill would expand Utah’s Sustainable Transportation Energy Plan to allow utility companies to invest in renewable natural gas projects, subject to the approval of the Utah Public Service Commission. These projects capture stray methane from local sources such as landfills and wastewater treatment plants and convert that methane into pipeline-quality natural gas.

Just like conventional natural gas, renewable natural gas can be compressed into a cost-effective transportation fuel for cars and heavy vehicles like buses and trucks, which typically run on diesel. But renewable natural gas has even greater environmental benefits because it keeps methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — out of the atmosphere.

In fact, when landfill or wastewater methane is used as a transportation fuel instead of diesel, the net impact on carbon emissions and local air quality is zero or even less than zero in some cases. Imagine a bus or truck with the same environmental profile as an electric car charged exclusively with solar panels and you can see the potential of renewable natural gas as a transportation fuel.

I applaud Handy’s work on this issue, which has major long-term environmental benefits as well as offering real improvements for air quality along the Wasatch Front. Likewise, Gov. Gary Herbert is showing real leadership with an unprecedented $100 million plan to dramatically cut emissions and improve the state’s air quality. Not surprisingly, the governor’s plan also includes measures to replace older and dirtier diesel engines in trucks and buses with cleaner engines that run on natural gas and other alternative fuels.

I hope these complementary plans can find their way to approval in the legislature this year, because it’s essential that Western conservatives put forward real and concrete solutions to the environmental challenges our communities face.

I was born and raised in the West and I’ve been active in Republican politics most of my life. In recent years, I have watched with dismay as far-left groups have taken over the environmental debate. They have painted Republicans and even some Democrats as anti-environment to discredit their legitimate criticisms of the “keep it in the ground” agenda, which would cripple our economy with bans on conventional energy sources and other command-and-control mandates.

Regrettably, I have seen some conservatives retreat from environmental issues, fearing that the territory now belongs to the left. But when conservatives fail to offer constructive solutions to environmental problems, it only makes big-government “solutions” more likely.

Thankfully, that is changing. Western leaders like Rep. Handy and Gov. Herbert are part of a growing movement, offering constructive solutions and reclaiming the historic role conservatives have played as responsible stewards of our environment. If they succeed, the economy and the environment of the West will be much better for it.

Bob Beauprez is a rancher and former congressman from Colorado. He also serves as the chairman of The Western Way, a nonprofit urging Western conservative leaders to deliver efficient, pro-market solutions to environmental and conservation challenges.

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