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What's stopping Utah's Legislature from solving the air pollution problem? Inside the politics of clean air

Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018.
Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018.

This is the third in a series of reports on Utah's air pollution problem. Using a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network our journalists have spent months looking for answers to Utah's air pollution problem.

In 2011, Rep. Steve Handy, a Republican who represents Layton, got a phone call from a constituent whose wife was sick. The caller asked Handy what he was doing about the dangerous pollution that clouds the Salt Lake Valley every winter.

“We can’t legislate geography,” Handy said. At the time, he thought air quality wasn’t a big deal and only affected a small number of people with bad lungs.

Nearly eight years later, the state representative is embarrassed by that response. He’s come a long way, he says, in realizing there’s a lot the Legislature can do to make the air cleaner — without leveling the Wasatch Mountains — and that bad air affects everyone who breathes it.

Handy isn’t an outlier among Republicans; bipartisan collaboration on clean air solutions has become the norm. The Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus, a bipartisan group founded five years ago by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, attracted more Democrats at the start, but now attendance is split, Handy said.

There have been more clean air bills in the past five years than the rest of the state’s history combined, according to Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. Ten of 51 clean air bills that have passed since 2014 were sponsored by both a Republican and a Democrat. Only one was sponsored by two Democrats, and the rest were sponsored by two Republicans.

Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, poses for photos at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, poses for photos at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“It’s important that we’re doing this in a bipartisan way,” Arent said. “We don’t get everything we want, but we’ve been very successful.”

But if most elected officials agree air quality is a problem for our state and the Legislature has a responsibility to help fix it, why are we still staring into an interminable dirty haze?

Particulate matter pollution has been cut in half since the 1980s, but ozone pollution levels in 2017 and 2018 were the worst in a decade, partly due to hotter and drier weather. If Utah doesn’t meet the EPA’s standards for both pollutants in the next few years, the state will be subject to more rigorous federal regulations, and concerned legislators, like Handy, fear the controls will strangle industry.

Despite what has been accomplished, Handy said the change in attitudes has been slow, even “glacial.” There are still legislators that don’t make air quality a priority, even though polling by the nonprofit Envision Utah shows air quality is a top concern for Utahns, ranking above economic development in 2014 and above education in 2015.

As it stands, air quality funding is just 0.16 percent of the 2019 enacted state budget and equivalent to 1.7 percent of road funding, according to Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gary Herbert signaled the problem deserves more of our resources with a 2020 budget recommendation of $100 million for air quality projects. The amount is still a fraction of the $19 billion budget but more than 10 times what has been recommended in previous years.

Attendees listen to the speech during the Dialogue on Collaboration event at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. The purpose of the event was to use dispute resolution techniques to overcome di
Attendees listen to the speech during the Dialogue on Collaboration event at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. The purpose of the event was to use dispute resolution techniques to overcome divisiveness and disparate interests related to the air quality problem.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

“We are very fortunate that Utah's successes and subsequent budget surplus enables us to make this huge down payment toward cleaner air," said Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff over communications and policy for the governor.

The governor’s budget is just a proposal, however. It’s still up to the Legislature to decide how our state’s money will actually be used. In 2017, for example, the Legislature approved about half of the $2.2 million the governor recommended for air quality monitoring and compliance while fully funding a $6.2 million technical support center for the Department of of Environmental Quality.

And even though Republicans and Democrats are working together, partisan ideologies still drive debate on clean air in Utah and divide legislators on solutions. While Democrats are more likely to favor a top-down regulatory approach, Republicans are more likely to favor incentives that let the free market drive improvements, state representatives such as Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, said.

Disagreement can prevent seemingly simple fixes from getting off the ground, said Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. While 51 clean air bills have passed in the past five years, 30 have been rejected by the Legislature, and several that passed took multiple years to get approved because they weren’t prioritized.

In the meantime, poor air quality shortens lives, increases health care costs and leads to more missed work and school days, according to Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Medical research is revealing more and more negative health effects, he said. A recent study from University of Utah Health found women living along the Wasatch Front had a 16 percent higher risk of miscarriage after short-term air pollution exposure.

Some legislators who vote no on air quality bills have pointed to limited funding. Some are worried about placing the burden on families by making it more expensive to drive or buy a home. And others are hesitant because they don’t think the government should hinder citizens’ freedom to do and buy what they want.

Ultimately, air quality is a political issue, even if legislators don’t want to acknowledge it, said Soltysiak.

“It’s political because there are short-term gains to be made without considering the long-term implications of those decisions. It’s a prioritization of the moment rather than thinking about future generations,” she said. “There has been progress; that is not insignificant. But we still have a long way to go.”

Is air quality really the Legislature’s problem?

While legislators agree its part of their job to ensure Utah’s air is clean enough to breathe, some also point to individuals’ responsibility to change their polluting habits.

“The Legislature has a role to play for sure, but the public in general can play the biggest role with their actions,” said Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. Because close to half of emissions come from vehicle sources, Schultz recommends Utahns reduce car trips and avoid idling.

Although individual behavior modifications could have the most significant impact on air quality, people won’t make the decision to change on their own, as indicated by data from Utah Clean Air Partnership. A 2018 poll showed 52 percent of people are willing to take some measures to improve air quality, but only if it is convenient or saves them money. The most common reasons for not taking public transit were: “inconvenient locations,” “adds time to commute” and “inconvenient schedule.”

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, stands up and claps during a special session of the Utah State Legislature at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, stands up and claps during a special session of the Utah State Legislature at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said the Legislature needs to make transit more accessible, especially on days when air quality is the worst. That’s why he's proposing a program that would make transit free on certain days during the winter. It’s not the first time he’s presented the idea. He first brought the concept to the Legislature six years ago, with a suggested $6 million price tag to cover free fares for two months. But Briscoe’s colleagues couldn’t get behind the cost without proof of how much the program would reduce pollution, he said. After testing the concept in 2017 and demonstrating that free fares increased UTA ridership by 23 percent, Briscoe is planning to run a scaled-back version of the bill. This time, he’s asking for just $1 million to cover $70,000 a day in lost fares for UTA for 14 days.

“This legislation is really about trying to change behavior,” Briscoe said. “We are not going to change air quality by continuing to live the way we live, so we’re asking people to try getting out of their cars.”

The Division of Air Quality can’t solve the pollution problem without the Legislature’s support either. Last session, the Legislature approved a $350,000 funding increase for the division to hire three new scientists. The division has spent the year working on a State Implementation Plan, required by the Clean Air Act, that will bring Utah into compliance with federal air pollution standards and involves technical controls to limit emissions from industrial equipment like boilers. But several experts, including Joro Walker, general counsel for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group based in Boulder, Colorado, doubt whether the plan will work.

She and other advocates do not think the requirements for industry sources, like refineries, are strict enough. They argue that whether we attain federal standards next year may depend mainly on weather conditions. Given current emissions along the Wasatch Front, pollution will likely exceed healthy levels again if an inversion sets in, she said.

Another problem, according to Walker, is that even with all the measures proposed in the plan, the Division of Air Quality predicts the Rose Park neighborhood will still experience dangerous air pollution levels.

“That is one of our disadvantaged communities,” said Walker. Rose Park residents disproportionately bear the burden of pollution because of their proximity to highways, refineries and the airport, as well as the fact that more individuals have older cars and rely on wood burning to supplement heating costs, she said.

If the state doesn’t meet its goals in the next few years, the EPA will create a Federal Implementation Plan which will apply all existing pollution control measures to Utah and could have a negative impact on economic development, according to Soltysiak.

Walker doubts Utah would ever be subject to a Federal Implementation Plan and pointed out that there are interim steps that would occur first.

According to Soltysiak however, the threat is real. Essentially any pollution control measure that has been adopted in any other state could be applied here in Utah in such a case. It would mean setting rigorous standards impacting industry, smaller business and residents alike, she said.

“That is precisely what big industry wants to avoid because it puts anything on the table,” said Soltysiak. “We are at the last point where we can choose to be progressive, or someone else will come in and tell us what we have to do.”

In order to prevent the state from losing control, it’s up to the Legislature to find air quality solutions that overcome typical barriers.

Why the Legislature hasn’t done more

In 2015, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, had an idea to raise money for air quality initiatives and discourage driving: adding $2.50 to the recycling fee imposed on tires purchased in the state. It seemed simple enough, and Chavez-Houck was confident it would be well-received. But the bill didn’t even make it out of the House Rules Committee.

Chavez-Houck was not prepared for the aggressive pushback from rental car companies and farmers who need tires for tractors. Lobbyists argued these businesses would be unfairly impacted because they need tires to operate.

Air quality advocates like Soltysiak said home building is another industry affected by clean air legislation. Sensitivity to the impact on builders can be a challenge when updating building codes and raising energy efficiency standards.

Tension between advocates and home builders was manifest in 2016 when Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, sponsored a bill titled, “Building Code Amendments,” which called for better insulation and tighter construction among other things. Edwards’s plan was proposed to challenge a less stringent building code update, HB 316, that extended the period of renewal from every three years to every six years, making it even harder to alter building codes in the future.

Edwards’ bill failed; the other succeeded with the support of the Home Builders Association and Republican leaders in the business of buildings, like Senate President Wayne Niederhauser R-Sandy, a real estate developer, and Speaker of the House Greg Hughes R-Draper, who works in construction and property management.

Hughes and Niederhauser could not be reached for comment.

“From the Home Builders Association, we’ve heard them say we don’t want to price people out of homes,” Soltysiak said. “My response to that would be: having a more efficient home helps a family stay in the home longer. Ultimately, it makes the home more affordable.”

Jaren Davis, executive officer of the Salt Lake Home Builders Association, said the group absolutely supports rules that make the air cleaner and save people money but the debate becomes more complicated when it comes to expensive measures that have minimal impact on the air. For every $1,000 added to the cost of a home in Utah, about 1,700 buyers are priced out, according to calculations from the National Association of Homebuilders.

Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.
Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.
Qiling Wang

One building code update that goes into effect in January and involves air exchanges per hour will cost thousands of dollars to implement in multi-family units and only leads to $12 of energy savings per year, said Schultz, a home builder by profession, citing calculations by independent energy testing company Provident Energy.

“We need to focus our efforts on things that move the needle and take everything into consideration. It’s about finding a balance that will make a difference,” Schultz said.

But there’s another side to the economic equation that is more difficult to quantify. Theresa Foxley, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah said poor air quality makes it harder for companies to recruit and retain talent. Polling by Envision Utah from 2017 shows air quality is the top reason high-tech employees in the Point of the Mountain area consider leaving the state.

But just how much business Utah is missing out on, as well as things like increased health care costs due to air quality are hard to calculate, said Chavez-Houck.

“It’s hard to say how beneficial legislation will be in terms of overall economic impact, whereas a rental car company can immediately calculate the cost of paying more for tires,” Chavez-Houck said.

Personal freedom

The “Utah way,” according to Sen. Wayne Harper R-Taylorsville, refers to Utahns’ propensity for compromise and ability to find solutions to challenging problems. But it also means that we like policies that align with Western values, like personal freedom, he said.

“One of the great benefits and heritage in America is our ability to live, work, play, commute and move all around this country and basically create a lifestyle in an environment that we want to live in,” said Harper. “It goes back to the old statement: if you want a future young man, go west!”

The Utah way also implies our methods are fundamentally different than say, the California way. Some legislators say California is too heavy-handed in enforcing regulation, said Ashley Miller, policy director for Breathe Utah.

When Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, tried to run a bill last year to adopt California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle program, which would have made electric cars cheaper and more plentiful in the state of Utah, he ran into a brick wall. Critics of the proposal worried the program would force vehicles on dealers that could not sell them.

The area of air quality policy where the idea of personal freedom comes into play most is wood burning, advocates agree.

In 2015, the Division of Air Quality floated the idea of a seasonal ban on wood burning because of the significant impact smoke has on our air. The Legislature responded with what was essentially, a ban on a ban, outlawing future bills that completely prohibited wood burning — even though we already have ‘mandatory no burn days’ when air pollution is high. The following year, the Legislature passed a culinary wood smoke regulation that made fires permissible any time of the year for restaurants with wood-fired ovens. But the law was written so broadly that it protected anyone who was roasting marshmallows over a fire, even on a red ‘no burn’ day, Soltysiak said.

Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.
Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.
Qiling Wang

“There’s a sort of libertarian mentality that this is my choice to burn wood, my right,” said Soltysiak. “But no one has the right to pollute their local airshed and ruin the quality of life for their neighbors.”

As more people see the right to clean air as paramount to the right to light a fire or drive a polluting vehicle, attitudes are changing, Soltysiak said.

The Legislature also intervened in 2012 when Salt Lake City made it illegal to leave a car idling for more than two minutes. The Legislature responded by creating a law that said an outright ban was not allowed. Rather, anti-idling ordinances, which several cities have now adopted, had to be educational in nature, and an individual had to be caught idling three times before there could be any type of sanction.

“Yes, there’s always things that we should do and we want to do because we want to make sure that air or water or whatever it may be is clean and healthy,” Harper said. “But we don’t want to stymie our ability to live as Americans.”

What are our priorities?

In the past, a major barrier to clean air bills has been funding. Legislators have struggled to balance air quality with other priorities, like education. But this year, with the governor recommending $100 million be used for air quality projects, that might not be the case. Still, legislators will have to decide whether that money would be best used for programs the governor has suggested, like the wood stove exchange program that gives citizens up to $3,800 to convert their existing fireplace or wood stove to a natural gas or propane device.

Legislators like Eliason are interested in getting the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

“There’s a desire to make improvements, but it’s finding policy ideas that will be justified by the cost,” said Eliason. “Do we want to pay to move all the refineries to the west desert? That would solve the probleam, but we only have so many dollars every session.”

Last session, Handy tried to get money to start a partnership with Union Pacific that would help them replace a few of their dirtiest locomotives called freight switchers. But he was unsuccessful because the $4 million cost was too high. Critics didn’t think the money should go to a multibillion-dollar company that was capable of making changes on its own. However, the Clean Air Act prohibits state regulation of railroad companies, so it is impossible for the government to compel Union Pacific to clean up its machinery. Handy will be pitching the idea again in 2019.

Arent believes some of the money allocated to corporations in the form of economic development tax incentives (more than $500 million in 2018) would be better utilized for air quality projects. Even though the majority of clean air funding requests have been approved in recent years, funding was less than what was asked for in some cases, she said.

Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, poses for photos at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, poses for photos at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

To solve the problem of lack of funding for clean air once and for all, Sen. Briscoe is working on a carbon tax bill for 2019. The money from taxing emissions would be used to create a new clean air fund for public transportation projects and electric vehicle incentives, for example. It would also be used to eliminate sales tax on food or increase retirement tax credits.

The idea, Briscoe admits, is forward thinking for Utah’s current political climate, but he believes a carbon tax is ultimately inevitable for our region and the rest of the country.

“It’s my responsibility to discuss things that I think should be discussed,” said Briscoe. “What a boring world if the only legislation people led was stuff you knew would pass.”

Harper says Utahns are ready for innovative solutions and recognizes bipartisan collaboration will help get Utah’s air to healthy levels and keep it there.

“Both sides need to come to a better understanding. They need to sit down together and evaluate: this is the benefit for that cost,” said Harper. “The Utah way is that instead of yelling at each other across the aisle, we sit down and we find a solution together. And then we do it.”


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