SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's typically ultraconservative GOP Legislature dipped its collective toe in the water of some eco-friendly measures this session, stepping up enforcement on vehicle idling, giving the go-ahead on a community's wholesale embrace of renewable energy and agreeing to at least study a carbon tax.
Lawmakers also endorsed instituting metering of pressurized secondary water throughout Utah on new construction after April 1, 2020, and enforcing the latest international energy efficiency codes in any new commercial construction after July 1.
Through the lens of what is good environmentally in the long term for the state and where there might be risks, lawmakers called both sides of the coin.
In one instance, they endorsed the secondary water metering but shunned a Capitol Hill water management plan. In another, they provided more money to study the algal bloom problem in Utah waters, but passed a law requiring legislative oversight of new rules dealing with a nutrient pollution that is a signficantly contributing factor.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, who ran the secondary water metering bill, said the provisions are "nowhere near where I think we need to be," but it is a start.
"Do I think this is the end all be all? No. I think it is a good first step," he said. "As we move forward, water conservation is going to be paramount."
Anderegg, a Republican from Lehi, said if Utah is really going to add 3 million more people to its population in the next 25 to 30 years, water consumption habits have to change.
"We need to stop the bleeding, so to speak."
Anderegg wanted to require metering of secondary water on existing connections, but couldn't get that passed. He did, however, succeed in getting a provision in his bill that would allow state loans to offset costs for water providers interested in taking the step.
Lawmakers also signed off on HB411, a measure by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, that allows communities to work out arrangements with Rocky Mountain Power and their residents and businesses to be "net 100 percent renewable" by 2030.
Advocates say this is a huge accomplishment, and Handy said he heaved and huffed to ease his colleagues' concerns.
"There is nothing like this in the country, it is so collaborative. We could find no legislation like this anywhere, which is why we had to kind of create it ourselves."
Salt Lake City, Park City and unincorporated Summit County have all committed to going to net 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, which means fossil fuel will remain as the "baseload" energy resource, Handy said.
But this is how the rest of it works.
If a community adopts a nonbinding resolution by the end of this year committing to that goal, a series of public notifications begin so ratepayers can opt in or opt out.
Handy said the ability to opt out or opt in is one of the most important provisions in the bill because participants will be agreeing to rates that are likely to be at least 7 percent higher. After those notifications, the community adopts a binding ordinance, triggering an investment of "millions" in renewable energy by Rocky Mountain Power, Handy said.
"This is big."
Handy also enjoyed success with HB107, a bill that will allow Dominion Energy to get approvals from the Public Service Commission to use some creative methods for capturing methane that would otherwise escape into the environment as pollution.
While rates will increase some for customers, Dominion Energy will put the methane generated from pig manure from a Utah farm into a pipeline and also capture the methane from a food waste digester from a North Salt Lake facility.
"The methane is captured and repurposed," Handy said. "It is a clean air initiative. It can be used in home heating and it can be used in the state's 26 CNG stations. It becomes net negative emissions."
In another clean air move, lawmakers endorsed a $6.9 million investment in electric vehicle charging for both government employees and the public and bought off, even with some skepticism, on a pilot program to fund free fare days on mass transit during inversion buildups.
Overall, there was $28.8 million in new money for air pollution measures.
"This was by far the largest investment in clean air in Utah history," said Alan Matheson, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
In another move that may surprise some, a bill proposing a carbon tax, HB304, did not entirely die.
The House Revenue and Tax Committee unanimously agreed to study it over the summer interim after hearing from the Citizens Climate Lobby that pitched a detailed plan modeled after a Washington initiative.
Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy, said she believes there has been a slow but steady shift in the Legislature due to strong bipartisan leadership with Handy, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and Gov. Gary Herbert.
"I think they are caring about public health and solutions and moving Utah toward leadership in creating a long-term healthy environment for Utah citizens and businesses," Wright said.
But it wasn't all rosy.
The Legislature passed radioactive waste amendments critics say make it easier to bury depleted uranium in Utah after being lobbied by deep-pocketed EnergySolutions, passed on a bill requiring lead testing in schools and child care centers, and dismissed crafting the water use management plan at Capitol Hill.
Despite Handy's repeated efforts to provide money for reducing emissions from rail yard freight switchers, that effort died as well.
Legislators also ignored the strong admonition of State Treasurer David Damschen to resist passage of a bill he asserted was "completely unnecessary" and allows a rural county coalition to avoid accountability in spending a $55 million loan in its pursuit of an inland port for coal exports.