It’s Utah’s job to clean up the air, no matter why it’s dirty, George Pyle writes

The fact that it is more difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It means we should try harder.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Equipment in the oil fields of the Uinta Basin Tuesday, February 7, 2012, southeast of Vernal, Utah.

If you live in Utah, high ozone levels are likely burning your lungs, shortening your life and generally making our state an unhealthy place to live. So it doesn’t really matter that some, or even most, of the airborne chemicals involved drifted here from somewhere else, or are caused by nature rather than humans.

What matters is the air is dangerous and it’s up to somebody to make it less so.

Somebody who lives here. Not someone who lives in China. And certainly not Mother Nature. Passing the buck might feel good. But it won’t solve the problem.

That’s why the federal Environmental Protection Agency last week rightly rejected Utah’s protestations that poor air quality hereabouts is the fault of substances that drifted all the way from Asia, or are just the way things are, and not the fault of stuff like dirty internal combustion engines or oil and gas wells.

Even if the state’s claims were true, even if it were coal plants in China and decaying petrochemicals that have been here for millions of years that account for a significant part of the local pollution, that doesn’t make the air cleaner or more breathable. It just means the region where we live is a particularly bad place to run two-stroke engines and vent methane from gas wells. So maybe we should cut down on all that.

It’s as if you were up to your waist in a swamp, your feet stuck in the mud, and someone comes along and says, “Hey, mind if I open this dam up here and double the depth of the water? And maybe add some alligators while I’m at it?”

The open floodgates, even the added reptiles, might not matter as much — might even be welcome — to someone standing in a desert. But to someone stuck in a mucky marsh, it can change things from disagreeable to disastrous really fast.

The fact that the state of Utah, its Department of Environmental Quality in particular and its political class in general, needs the federal government to point that out to them is not a good look for “The Best Managed State.”

That Utah was claiming it shouldn’t be held to account for bad air — the sometimes really, really bad air — flows from the fact that the powers that be in the Beehive State are more devoted to the excavation, marketing and burning of fossil fuels that they are to the health of residents. And that it isn’t fair that those activities might have to be limited to accomplish the federally and morally required goal of reducing ozone and other pollution.

Yes, it will be more difficult to accomplish that here than it would be in many other places. But it doesn’t make it less important. If anything, it makes it more important. The EPA is taking public comment on what should be done about it until June 13.

It may require serious restrictions on things like the use of the dirtiest engines, properly assisted by the kind of program the state and Salt Lake City have run in the past, offering electric lawn mowers in exchange for gas-powered ones.

It may mean that oil and gas extraction northward needs to be significantly curtailed, or more stringently regulated, to stop the leaking of hydrocarbons from those wells.

It certainly means Utah should give up its daft idea of building a new rail line to carry more of that particularly sticky petroleum from the Uinta wellheads to refineries to the east and south.

It means the federal government announced three bits of really good news in recent days.

It said that only a single 160-acre parcel of federally-owned land in Utah will be offered for lease when the Bureau of Land Management resumes oil leasing. That those who buy such leases and sink wells on federal land will be held to a promise to cap those wells when they aren’t in production any more. And it announced that the BLM has leased some 4,800 acres on three parcels of public land in Utah’s Beaver County for use as a new solar energy farm.

The feds at least recognize the future of energy, and Utah’s huge potential to lead it, even if state officials are willfully blind to the opportunity.

Editor’s note  This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is accepting public comment on, well, just about everything.


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