Tribune Editorial: Carbon capture is worth a look, but let’s get those free buses rolling

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utahns board a UTA bus along 2100 S in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

For about as long as such creatures have existed, editorial writers have been applying a popular witticism attributed to Mark Twain — “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it” — to other issues. As in, everybody talks about (homelessness, poverty, money in politics, etc., etc.) but nobody… You get the drift.

It is becoming increasingly clear that it is time to turn back to the original version of the dictum and declare that we need to stop just talking about the weather and do something about it.

Lots of things, in fact.

Heat domes in the American Southwest. Runaway wildfires in Canada, fouling the air in the Northeast U.S., and in Greece, causing panic evacuations of busy resorts.

Hospital burn units in Phoenix filled with patients who merely fell onto hot pavement and scalded themselves. Water temperatures off the Florida coast that rival those of your typical hot tub. Insurance companies refusing to cover property in the Sunshine State because the risk of hurricane damage has become too great.

A negative feedback loop of higher temperatures leading to more electricity consumption, burning more fossil fuels to keep our frighteningly creaky power grid powered up. At higher costs to consumers.

Everywhere you look, stuff is starting to get real.

Utah’s political class has long ignored, or actively denied, the threat of climate change. But there are signs that a realization may be dawning and some things are happening.

Some of them are designed to clean up our carbon mess, a tall order that may be workable or may be an excuse to keep polluting based on a vaporware promise of remediation. Others, more hopefully, are intended to make less of it.

Take carbon out of the air

Federal grants are being handed out to operations looking at ways to take large chunks of that excess planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it, perhaps in the kind of rock formations that Utah apparently has in abundance.

Never averse to gobbling up federal boodle, even as we rhetorically bite the hand that feeds us, Utah government and private operations are looking into the feasibility of the idea.

So far, it may look a little bit iffy, with some potential for a lot of collateral damage even it could work. And the idea only seems applicable to larger point sources of CO2, such as the kind of coal-fired power plants that are already on their way out, while useless when it comes to absorbing the majority of such pollution that comes out of auto tailpipes.

But the situation is desperate enough that it is well worth spending the money to explore the possibility that we can remove significant amounts carbon from our atmosphere. Even if it smells a bit like an excuse for burning more coal, and could be another threat to sensitive public lands including the Bears Ears National Monument.

Put less carbon in the air

If carbon capture won’t do much for the greenhouse gases that rise from automobiles and trucks, then we are going to have to put together a bunch of ways to reduce that source.

Utah should do more to build up its infrastructure for electric cars. It’s moving in the right direction, but the fear that they might run out of juice is a major deterrent for those who might otherwise go electric. And the Utah Legislature should give up its jealousy about electric cars not paying gasoline tax and come up with a tax structure that creates more of an incentive for EV adoption. The loss in revenue will be well worth the gain in carbon-free driving.

The Utah Transit Authority is also taking steps to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and take a train or a bus. The agency is about to roll out its new Ogden Express — OGX to its friends — using a fleet of electric buses to connect the authority’s Ogden FrontRunner station to the Weber State University campus and McKay-Dee Hospital.

Thanks to federal grants, the service will not only be carbon-free, it will also be fare-free, at least for the first three years. The express bus concept, already installed successfully in Utah County, shows great promise.

Dedicated lanes allow the buses to move more quickly from point to point, almost like light rail, at a fraction of the cost of what would be necessary to build more TRAX lines.

Launching the Ogden service as a free ride, as was the case for the first three years of the Utah County system, is also a key to the success of rapid transit, both for riders and the wider community.

Going to a total free-fare UTA shouldn’t be that difficult. And the lost revenue would be significantly offset by no longer having to spend money to collect those fares — ticket machines, fare boxes and a variety of pass option.

Cool the urban landscape

As we await the transition from a heavily fossil fuel-based world to one less dependent on burning hydrocarbons, there are other things we can do to heat-proof our communities, especially urban areas.

The most obvious way, and the one with the most pleasant side-effects, would be to use public funds and municipal planning rules to make our cities less about asphalt and more about green spaces. The presence of grass and, especially, trees can make a significant difference in the temperature found in any neighborhood on a summer day.

We will have to get smarter about drought-tolerant planting and use the most water-efficient ways to help it all grow. But less pavement and more trees can have a serious positive impact on any neighborhood’s afternoon heat index.

We are going to need every tool in the kit to face this threat to our lives.