Commentary: Urban and rural Utah will both benefit if we Clean The Darn Air

FILE - This Jan. 23, 2013, file photo, shows a poor air quality warning is posted over a highway, in Salt Lake City. Inversions hover over Salt Lake City as cold, stagnant air settles in the bowl-shaped mountain basins, trapping tailpipe and other emissions that have no way of escaping to create a brown, murky haze the engulfs the metro area. Doctors warn that breathing the polluted air can cause lung problems and other health concerns, especially for pregnant women and people with respiratory issues. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Much of urban Utah suffers from poor air quality. Much of rural Utah struggles economically. It may be possible to address both problems with the same piece of legislation: the Clean The Darn Air measure that is gathering signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot.

In the heavily populated Wasatch Front and Cache Valley areas, air quality is often far below national standards. Poor air quality is a significant health threat to Utah residents, especially children and the elderly. And air pollution further impacts health — and the quality of our lives — by limiting outdoor activity. Unless changes are made, poor air quality will also stunt economic growth by discouraging health-conscious individuals and high-tech firms from moving to the state.

As for the economic struggles of rural residents, just look at how much lower incomes are in rural Southern Utah than in urban Northern Utah. For example, median household income is over $75,000 in Davis County but less than $47,000 in Piute, Wayne, San Juan and Carbon counties. Among the many outcomes of low incomes are reduced opportunities and negative health consequences that include higher rates of opioid addiction.

The economic problems of rural communities in Utah — and throughout the United States — are exacerbated by the decline in traditional employment in agriculture, manufacturing, mining and logging. I have studied rural economies for my entire career, and I can tell you that most job losses in these industries come from technological progress: machines replacing human labor. Trying to restore these jobs is a largely futile endeavor. Employment in these sectors will never be as high as in decades past.

The silver lining in the cloud is that technological progress has also created new opportunities in rural areas. With modern information and communication technology, it is now possible to live in a rural area and market one’s products or skills globally. The reduced relevance of distance is the basis for building a 21st century rural economy. For example, Utah’s Rural Online Initiative — administered by Utah State University Extension — helps rural residents identify opportunities to earn money online and then provides training so they have the skills to do so.

The Clean The Darn Air ballot measure would provide an opportunity to improve both air quality and rural economies. It would impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels, the dominant source of our air pollution problems. This promotes energy conservation and cleaner air, especially because $100 million of the revenue goes to reduce air pollution. An even bigger chunk of the revenue goes to reduce existing taxes, including eliminating the state sales tax on grocery store food. Taxing pollution instead of potatoes is just plain common sense.

And a significant share of the revenue — $50 million a year — goes to promote economic development in rural Utah. That money could fund the continuation and expansion of the Rural Online Initiative, and it could also help close the gap between the quality of broadband available in rural areas compared to urban areas.

Investments in job training and improved infrastructure could allow many businesses and industries to operate as effectively in Panguitch as in Provo; in Beaver as effectively as Bountiful. Companies could enjoy the flexibility of having their employees live in rural America and work remotely. Families in rural Utah would have more job opportunities. Families in urban areas would benefit from less traffic congestion and cleaner air, and they could relocate if they wanted more space and lower housing costs.

The proposed Clean The Darn Air ballot measure will improve the health of families and economies across the state.

Don Albrecht. Ph.D., director of the Western Rural Development Center, Utah State University

Don Albrecht is director of the Western Rural Development Center and the author of books including “Rethinking Rural” and “Rural Housing and Economic Development.” These views are his own, not those of the center.