Commentary: Utah air pollution is literally killing us

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Refinery row in North Salt Lake is obscured by poor air quality as inversion conditions continue on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

In poll after poll, air pollution is among the most important issues to Utahns across the political spectrum. However, until six months ago when our research group at Brigham Young University started a project on the costs of air pollution in Utah, we personally had no idea how serious air pollution was. We now view air pollution as the most important issue facing our state and one of its greatest opportunities.

Working with 22 Utah researchers, we brought together the best medical and economic studies to estimate how much air pollution was hurting Utah’s economy and health. The results were staggering.

Air pollution is decreasing the life expectancy of the average Utahn by 1.1 to 3.5 years. Rather than just affecting “sensitive groups,” three out of four Utahns are losing at least one year of life, and one out of four Utahns are losing five years or more. That means that air pollution kills many times more Utahns each year than car accidents and drug and alcohol incidents combined.

The economic burden of this loss of life and associated costs is immense, totaling $1.8 to $7.4 billion every year. For reference, the Utah Legislature spent only $30 million towards air quality in 2019, amounting to about 1% of the yearly cost of air pollution.

These estimates are much higher than what is being discussed in Utah legislative circles and state plans. However, the best scientific and medical research indicates our study’s numbers are conservative. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but because air pollution is so harmful, solving it is one of Utah’s greatest opportunities. Multiple independent economic studies have found that when you invest in reducing pollution, huge health and economic benefits follow. For example, clean air regulation in the United State has yielded an average return on investment of 32:1.

The biggest source of pollution in Utah is cars and trucks. The conservative solution would be to stop subsidizing personal vehicle use. Every year, the Legislature takes over half a billion dollars from the General Fund to pay for roads that are supposed to be maintained by the gasoline tax.

Given that raising the gas tax is unpopular, another solution would be to level the playing field for public transit. Until the air pollution crisis is solved, we should make UTA free. This would cost around $230 million — just over a third the amount we spend subsidizing personal vehicle use by building roads with the General Fund. With a fraction of that funding, we could expand successful routes such as FrontRunner and UVX and establish new transit lines in rapidly growing areas such as Washington and Utah Counties. Building transit as we develop new areas is substantially less expensive and more effective.

The second largest source of air pollution is homes and buildings. We should expand weatherization programs and increase efficiency standards for all new construction. The Department of Energy has identified this as the most cost-effective way Utah could conserve energy and reduce pollution. This investment and legislative change would create thousands of high-quality jobs and reduce utility bills for Utah families.

Finally, we need to upgrade air pollution monitoring in Utah. The Division of Air Quality has shut down some of its stations because of funding shortages. Without knowing the size and location of the problem, we are driving blind.

While it’s easy to be discouraged about air pollution, history reminds us that great gains are possible. Utah cut air pollution in half after the Clean Air Act and its amendments were passed in the 1960s to 1990s. However, since that time, overall air pollution has stopped declining or even worsened because of population growth, wildfires and poor city planning. If we take this problem seriously, we could make another leap forward, clearing the air for our children and ensuring prosperous economic growth for Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert’s budget recommendations move in this direction, but our conversations with state legislators suggest that currently his budget has almost no chance of getting passed.

We challenge each of you to look up your legislators on Utah.gov today and tell them to support bills implementing the governor’s budget. Unless we do, our greatest economic opportunity and most serious moral challenge may go up in smoke.

Ben Abbott

Ben Abbott is an assistant professor of environmental science at Brigham Young University.

Isabella Errigo

Isabella Errigo is a senior in environmental science at Brigham Young University.

Don Jarvis

Don Jarvis is a professor emeritus of Brigham Young University and works on sustainability in Provo.