Scott Williams: A turning point for Utah’s air quality

(Rick Bowmer | AP) The floor of the Utah House of Representatives is viewed during the Utah legislative session Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Salt lake City. Lawmakers are expected to consider hundreds of bills over the 45-day period.

The Salt Lake Tribune article listing some of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus’ “to do” priorities for the 2020 state legislative session illustrates the many ways we could be reducing the smog we can see in the winter, and the equally-harmful ozone we can’t see in the summer.

Over the past seven years, this group has been the driving force behind most of the major air quality legislation that has been enacted in Utah. The caucus’ full list of 21 priority bills for 2020 basically fall into two categories: incentives and planning.

The majority of the bills propose financial incentives and consumer education to encourage residents and businesses to transition to using vehicles and sources of electricity that generate fewer or no emissions. Our driving and energy-use habits are the primary causes of poor air quality, and providing the tools to help us change those habits can result in long-lasting improvements.

The caucus’ big system change ideas would supercharge that transition and move the state forward more rapidly in cleaning up the air we breathe. These bills direct state agencies to gather needed air quality-related data or develop major new infrastructure plans.

One (HB259) would focus on the development of a statewide network of electric vehicle charging stations and another (SB92) on an integrated rail system that would increase ridership and move us toward electrification of the state’s rail system.

Two other game-changing proposals are also in the mix this session. Gov. Gary Herbert’s proposal to appropriate $100 million to clean air initiatives would fund the statewide electric vehicle charging infrastructure and improvements in public transportation.

It’s time for the funding of projects that improve air quality to be placed at the same priority level as building new highways and state buildings. Rather than funding more roads or lanes, we should prioritize solving congested transportation corridors by adding convenient public transit options.

Rather than constructing new state offices, we should prioritize technology that allows state workers to do their jobs and residents to receive public services either in their homes or close by.

The other transformative proposal is HCR011, committing the state to adopting The Utah Roadmap, the result of a year long study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business. In 2019 the state legislature appropriated $210,000 for the Institute to evaluate the state’s air pollution and climate issues and provide recommendations.

A 37-member Roadmap technical advisory group recommended 59 policy changes and suggested that the state begin by pursuing seven of them that comprise the first phase of the state’s journey to clean air and clean energy. The first of the seven recommendations are the most important, as they establish two measurable goals that will focus the efforts and hold the state accountable for results: 1) Reduce air pollution levels (below 2017 levels) by 50% by 2050, and 2) reduce carbon emissions by 80% (below 2005 levels) by 2050. Even our federal delegates, like U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams, have expressed interest in this Roadmap.

The Roadmap’s goals may sound like a big lift, but Utah already has a huge head start. Twenty-three communities, cities, towns and counties have committed to be using 100% net renewable energy by 2030. In 2019, the Utah Legislature appropriated $29 million to air quality programs, which was around $28 million more than ever before.

Passage of the Clean Air Caucus’ priority bills, appropriation of the governor’s air quality budget and a commitment to the Utah Roadmap would make the 2020 legislative session a turning point for improving the air we breathe.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, M.D., is executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.