Our fossil fuel emissions present two significant threats to the quality of life in the state of Utah. First, air pollution in Utah is estimated to cause 2,480 to 8,000 premature deaths annually and decreases median life expectancy by 1.1 to 3.6 years. 

Second, the disproportionate impact of climate on the southwest region of North America threatens our state’s agriculture, municipal water supplies, wildlife, forests, wetlands and ski industry.

For example, a recent analysis suggests that human-driven climate warming and drying accounted for roughly 50% of the severity of the 2000–2018 southwest drought, making it comparable to the worst megadroughts of southwestern North America during the past 2,000 years.

Two bills that are under consideration during the 2022 state legislative session aim to tackle these problems head-on, but in a pocketbook-friendly way. The head-on approach involves a carbon tax to internalize the external costs — the costs that we impose on others around the state and around the world — that each of us create when we drive our vehicles, heat our homes and businesses and jet around the planet.

The approach of taxing fossil fuels to incentivize switching to clean sources of energy has long been championed by economists as the single most effective way to reduce carbon emissions. The pocketbook-friendly angle is that both bills, if adopted into law, would return the carbon tax to our pockets through dividends or reductions in other taxes and expenses.

House Joint Resolution HJR3, sponsored by Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, supports the use of nationwide border adjusted carbon fees and dividends as the best way to encourage the development of clean energy technologies. The nationwide fee would place a tax on fossil fuel. The border adjustment would impose a similar tax on imported goods and provide a rebate on exported goods. The carbon fee would be affordable because the money collected would be returned as a dividend or payment, to every American. 

Currently, there are two such fee and dividend plans being discussed at the national level: the Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan, which is advocated by the Climate Leadership Council, and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, advocated by the Citizens Climate Lobby.

Senate Bill 187, sponsored by Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, would impose a modest tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels burned in Utah. The bill would return to households much of the added cost by eliminating existing taxes, notably our regressive state sales taxes on grocery store food. It would also make public transit free and pay for a 10% refundable match of the federal earned income tax credit for low-income working families. (The legislature just passed a nonrefundable EITC, but making it refundable would be a huge improvement.)

Thus, Kitchen’s bill would shift the state of Utah from taxing potatoes to taxing pollution, an idea whose time has come. If it struggles to get traction in the Legislature (as did Rep. Joel Briscoe’s 2019 carbon pricing bill, HB304) then our group, Clean the Darn Air, will be working to put a clean-air-and-climate measure on the 2024 ballot.

Utah’s double burden of toxic air pollution and a warming, drying climate may ultimately represent a superpower. Although we are a relatively conservative state, our citizens are motivated to take action to clean our air and cool the planet. Both HJR3 and SB187 represent opportunities for the state of Utah to provide leadership at the national level. I urge you to voice support for these bills by contacting your legislators.

David Carrier is a professor in the School of Biological Science at the University of Utah.