Sara Baldwin: We need Mitt Romney’s help to clean Utah’s air

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) In this June 20, 2018, photo, Mitt Romney smiles during a campaign event in American Fork.

News that Sen. Mitt Romney helped broker a bipartisan deal with President Biden on the $579 billion infrastructure plan is good for America. But if the goal is clean air and a sustainable economy for Utah, the job is not done.

Multiple solutions proposed by Biden’s American Jobs Plan did not make the cut. Romney must continue bridging partisan gaps for lasting solutions to recharge Utah’s economy and cut air pollution.

As Utahns endure the hottest June on record, we’re already experiencing another perilous fire season. Seniors, children, people of color and those with health conditions suffer disproportionately from the impacts of dirty air exacerbated by heat and wildfire smoke. As a lifelong Utah resident, I know these extreme conditions are our new norm and will only get worse.

Buildings and vehicles emit nearly 85 percent of statewide air pollution. Salt Lake City still ranks seventh among large metro areas in the U.S. with the worst air quality. Inefficient buildings, polluting gas vehicles and appliances and industrial facilities are diminishing Utah’s quality of life. Efforts to revitalize our post-pandemic economy must address these problems.

While the infrastructure proposal is a good start, more should be done to address these challenges through investments in efficient, all-electric buildings and vehicles, supported by an affordable clean electric grid.

Thirteen percent of Utahns live in substandard housing, and we’re facing an affordability crisis. Eighty percent of Utah homes, businesses and industries use fossil gas appliances and equipment, and we spend $900 million annually on natural gas bills. Burning gas is a leading cause of our poor air quality while gas appliances in our homes, especially stoves, worsen indoor pollution and cause major health problems. Two decades of research show gas stoves can emit pollution levels that violate outdoor air standards, and children in homes with gas stoves suffer up to a 42 percent increased risk of asthma.

Combining energy-efficient lighting, appliances and weatherization with “electrification” — replacing gas with clean electricity — will cut pollution and improve our health. Yet, the infrastructure bill seems to have ignored homes and buildings. The American Jobs Plan proposed $213 billion to build and retrofit 2 million affordable and sustainable residences, including 1 million new all-electric homes. Such investments would benefit Utahns where they live and reduce harmful pollution.

Good-paying jobs are another reason to invest in our homes. Energy efficiency is Utah’s largest energy employer, boasting more than 32,000 people before COVID-19. While we lost 2,000 of those jobs during the pandemic, the American Job Plan’s energy-efficiency proposals would immediately put people back to work while creating thousands of new jobs. These jobs typically pay higher, more equitable wages compared to all workers nationally.

With more than 3 million registered vehicles and expected sustained growth, Utah urgently needs cleaner transportation options. The infrastructure deal proposes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure and $7.5 billion for electric buses and transit — a good start, but pennies compared to the AJP’s proposal for $174 billion to “win the electric vehicle market.”

Investments in electric transportation can improve our global competitiveness, support our workers and make clean transportation accessible for all families. Utahns would benefit from a more comprehensive bill to scale EVs and charging infrastructure, and Romney should support more ambitious federal transportation policies.

I applaud Romney for putting country before party and brokering a bipartisan plan. But it can’t end there. He should continue to bring Utah’s values to Washington by prioritizing clean, homes, transportation, and electricity. He can demonstrate his leadership, benefit Utahns where they live, and put America on the path to economic recovery and a healthier future.

Sara Baldwin

Sara Baldwin is the director of Electrification Policy at Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan climate and energy policy think tank helping policymakers make informed energy policy choices, and a fifth-generation Utahn based in Salt Lake City.