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In our opinion: Utah should drive down air pollution by driving cleaner

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As Northern Utah heads into what traditionally is the season for poor air quality, a new report from the Utah Foundation offers some interesting perspectives.

The biggest contributor to air pollution during weather inversions is vehicle exhaust. That much is widely known. But the report, “Driving toward a cleaner future,” says one-third of those vehicle emissions comes from large fleet vehicles, or trucks operated by companies. The report suggests the state would get a big return on air quality by focusing on offering incentives to companies to convert their fleets to compressed natural gas. Helping them replace older large diesel trucks, those from 2008 or before, to those using “clean diesel” also would offer a huge benefit.

Utah already provides a credit for the purchase of heavy duty natural gas vehicles. That credit stands at $18,000 this year and is scheduled to be reduced to $15,000 next year before expiring. The credit has a $500,000 limit, but demand has yet to approach that level.

The prudent thing would be for Utah lawmakers to extend and increase the credit, then to launch an aggressive campaign to let business owners know it exists. The report said only companies, not self-employed truck owners, have taken advantage of the credit so far.

The report also suggests adjusting the credit to include electric or hydrogen-powered trucks, and even those using “clean diesel,” which run nearly as clean as those using natural gas but are cheaper to operate.

Meanwhile, sales of alternative-fuel passenger cars continues to grow, but at a slow pace. Electric vehicles make up only 1.6% of the market in Utah. The report doesn’t discount the value of incentives for private owners to buy such cars, but it suggests matching Colorado’s incentive of $5,000 per car, which would make a significant dent in the difference between the purchase price of a regular gas vehicle and one that uses electricity, either solely or as a hybrid.

Also, local governments should consider ways to encourage the availability of more charging stations.

Among the reasons consumers give for not wanting to buy an electric vehicle, one of the biggest is the worry that it would be too hard to find a charging station before the car runs out of energy. Making charging stations more visibly available would alleviate some of those worries.

Each of these suggestions costs money, and each might be a tough sell at a time when lawmakers are hip-deep in a tax reform process they hope will result in a net tax decrease. It’s worth remembering, however, that air quality consistently ranks near the top of concerns Utahns express in opinion polls.

Studies have drawn links between Utah’s worst air-quality days and various health problems. A study released last year drew a connection to miscarriages.

Northern Utah’s unique geography exacerbates the problem as high pressure weather systems trap cold, stagnant air in valleys. Little can be done to keep these inversions from forming, but much can be done to minimize the way the people trapped inside them contribute to pollution.

Natural market forces aren’t likely to solve this problem any time soon, particularly as traditional gas remains inexpensive.

The Utah Foundation’s suggestion of a mix of incentives and mandates for passengers and fleet vehicles, as well as an increase in the infrastructure needed to keep alternative-fuel vehicles going, would be worth the cost.