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Utah business leaders make economic case for clean air

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitigating Utah's notorious inversions can have a positive impact on more than just air quality. According to local business leaders, cleaner air could improve the state's business climate as well as upgrade the environment.

Approximately 100 business leaders convened in the downtown offices of the Salt Lake Chamber to make the business and economic case for clean air.

“Part of our mission at the Chamber is to champion community prosperity,” said panel moderator Natalie Gochnour, chief economist of the Salt Lake Chamber. “Our work to clean the air does that by improving health and boosting our economy.”

During a meeting Wednesday, a panel of four local business and environmental leaders discussed how poor air quality hinders corporate relocation efforts, places additional regulatory burdens on business, increases health-care costs and can potentially put Utah’s federal highway funding at risk.

With more than half the air pollution coming from vehicles, the business community can make a difference, said panelist Kelly Sanders, president and chief executive officer of Rio Tinto/Kennecott Utah Copper.

“It’s very easy to look at the cars and say it is someone else’s problem,” said Sanders. “We need to come up with the solution as a business community.”

Sanders detailed some of the strategies the global mining firm has implemented in an effort to reduce emissions, as well as cut down on dust and other pollutants at the Kennecott Copper Mine.

He noted that parent company Rio Tinto has increased the amount of weight its trucks can move for the same mileage by 50 percent. Additionally, an idle time reduction program has reduced by 20,000 tons the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by its fleet and saved the company $5.5 million and 1.8 million gallons of fuel.

“The clean air issue will only be solved by business, and if we don’t solve it we can’t sustain our business,” Sanders said. “It truly is an opportunity for us to provide a solution to the problem.”

The panel also discussed the potential benefits of Utah’s abundant and relatively inexpensive natural gas supply. Increased use of natural gas could significantly enhance air quality, they agreed, as well as increased use of compressed natural gas-fueled vehicles in commercial and private applications.

“We have been lagging in this area, but we have seen a substantial shift and the deployment of infrastructure for CNG vehicles is under way,” said Craig Wagstaff, senior vice president of Questar Gas. “We need to develop this resource wisely and in a responsible way.”

Currently, about 120,000 vehicles nationwide run on natural gas compared to 20 million CNG vehicles worldwide. While the U.S. has been slow to transition to compressed natural gas as a transportation fuel, Utah has been among the leaders in the continued development, especially with the investment in the state's natural gas corridor, Wagstaff explained.

There are now 27 natural gas vehicle stations in the state with two more on the way, he said.

Meanwhile, the panelists agreed the private sector must also play a critical role in addressing the air quality issue.

Alan Matheson, the state's senior environmental adviser, said Utah is working on a number of clean air initiatives that will promote its commitment to the Clear the Air Challenge — a program that encourages Utahns to cut back on the amount of miles driven and use mass transit alternatives.

Overall, improving Utah's air quality will have wide-ranging advantages, including bolstering the climate for new businesses to relocate to the Beehive State or providing a cleaner environment for existing businesses and residents. In either case, the economic benefit could be significant over the long run.

“Every business that considers coming here wants to talk about quality of life,” said Jeff Edwards, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Utah. “Clean air is very important for employee retention and for a corporate image — all things businesses consider when they decide to come here.”