Tribune Editorial: To clear the air, electrify the fleet

Most of the improvement in air quality in recent years – here and elsewhere – has come from cleaner vehicles.

This Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, photo shows a Tesla Model S on display in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt announced this week that the agency was moving ahead with defining places that need to do more to reduce ozone pollution, reversing an earlier decision to delay by a year.

What does that mean for Utah? Basically nothing. Utah’s air quality regulators anticipate Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Duchesne and Uintah counties being declared “non-attainment areas,” meaning ozone concentrations reach unhealthy levels too often. The only remaining question is what level of non-attainment the counties have reached. Those that barely exceed are given more time to see if the situation improves, while areas that are bigger violators have to take bigger steps.

The announcement came the same week that Utah air quality officials said we’re having our worst ozone season since 2008. There have been more than a dozen times this summer when some area in the state has exceeded EPA ozone standards. So while the bureaucrats in Washington grind through their procedures, Utah would be wise to jump ahead and start actually making the air healthier.

Ozone is too much of a good thing. Put two oxygen atoms in a molecule, and it’s live-giving. Add a third oxygen atom, and it’s life-harming, irritating lungs and compromising vulnerable respiratory systems.

Three things are needed to create ozone: heat, sunlight and hydrocarbons. The first two are out of our control, so it’s the third one that draws the attention of regulators. The state’s ozone plan likely would include tighter controls on paints and solvents and other “volatile organic compounds.”

It’s burning that really ups the pollution, and vehicles are biggest contributor, responsible for more than half of both ozone and particulates, the main winter pollutant along the Wasatch Front.

Enter electric cars. Most of the improvement in air quality in recent years – here and elsewhere – has come from cleaner vehicles. Efficiencies in internal combustion engines have taken tons of pollutants out of the air. Electric cars take that down to zero, and improvements in battery life and costs are bringing them into the mainstream.

But in Utah, support for electric vehicles has been mixed. New charging stations recently opened amid slowly rising sales. But while Tesla’s stock jumped recently on larger than expected sales on its Model 3, you can’t get one from a Utah dealership because Utah law won’t allow it. And in the last legislative session, a bill to extend a tax credit for electric vehicles died.

Electric cars are not a magic bullet. For starters, in Utah they’re mostly coal burners, since most of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. (But, unlike gas-powered cars, the pollution is generated miles away from a large population, in Emery County.) They also disrupt the current model of using gasoline taxes to fund roads.

But they are surely coming, and we should be welcoming them. Every time someone buys one, we all breathe a little easier.