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Air is getting cleaner, but Utah legislators still driving 22 clean air proposals

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, right, and members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus prepare to discuss air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, right, and members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus prepare to discuss air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Air quality issues remain a top priority in Utah despite recent energy sector improvements.

That’s according to members of the Utah Legislature’s Bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, who outlined their 22 legislative proposals on Wednesday.

“The long-term trends, in many ways, our air is getting cleaner. But we’re putting more people here, and we also have a lot more information about how it has a relationship to suicide, has a relationship to heart problems, to breathing problems, to learning issues, and we should pay attention,” Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol.

With HB145, Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, wants the state to set a new energy efficiency goal. Utah currently seeks to reach 20% renewable energy by 2025, but Ward says “it’s time to raise our sights a little higher and look a little farther into the future.”

The bill would set a goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030.

“If you look at the new technologies that are coming along, if you look at the plans from our major utilities, we can make it there,” Ward said.

He said he believes the state would approach the goal in a cost-effective way.

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, proposes three bills that would implement recommendations made by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute last year:

  • HB123 would direct the the Division of Air Quality to study the feasibility of creating a laboratory to examine air quality and changing climate solutions.
  • HB131, which Handy is co-sponsoring with Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, would require state facilities to submit their utility efficiency information so the state can better handle energy costs.
  • Through an appropriations request, Handy is also seeking funds to start a mobile air monitoring project on Utah Transit Authority buses in Salt Lake County.
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, a member of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, right, holds a press conference to discuss air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Standing with Handy are Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, left, and Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, a member of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, right, holds a press conference to discuss air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Standing with Handy are Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, left, and Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Last year, Utah lawmakers invested $5 million for a one-time boost the electric vehicle charging network and also passed a measure that allows Rocky Mountain Power to spend $50 million on the effort. In addition, the Legislature decided to spend $1.6 million to expand and increase service on the FrontRunner.

But advocates worry improvements in air quality could dampen lawmakers’ enthusiasm for funding new projects.

Both this winter and last winter, Utah saw fewer inversions. Local refineries’ switch to making the cleaner-burning Tier 3 gasoline, which is widely available along the Wasatch Front, marked an improvement in the state’s energy landscape. Areas of non-attainment with federal clean air standards, including the Salt Lake-Provo-Ogden areas that had been under pressure from the EPA to come into compliance, reached it last year.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget this year includes millions for energy efficiency projects: $350 million to double-track FrontRunner trains and $6 million for electric vehicle infrastructure in rural Utah.

Improvements don’t mean it’s time to shift focus from clean air, Briscoe said.

“Someone told me Mother Nature always bats last, and she bats a thousand. And we love her cleaning out the air for us, but we can’t dial up future air flow. And even with these great winter, crystalline clear days, we still have ozone problems, which is a precursor to an awful lot of things that damage lungs,” Briscoe said.

“And so I am concerned that people will say, ‘It’s all good, and we don’t have a problem.’ I think we need to talk about health,” he said.

When the caucus first formed in 2013, Briscoe said, he and others proposed making buses free on “red” air quality days. But they realized that it takes days to get to a red day — it grows from yellow to orange before it reaches that dangerous level, he said.

“We need to broaden how we attack all this. And the more research you do, the more you learn that breathing low levels of air pollution damages our health. It doesn’t just occur just on red days, it doesn’t occur just on yellow days or orange days.”

Other proposed bills would add incentives for cleaner energy.

Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, and members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus discusses air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.
Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, and members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus discusses air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, and Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, are co-sponsoring HB223, which would create tax credits for hydrogen-powered systems in the state.

“It’s one of the most abundant elements that we have on the Earth, and for transportation needs, for example, it actually takes less water to fuel cars and trucks with hydrogen than it does for petroleum,” Ballard said.

She says her bill would put hydrogen “on parity” with other fuels as hydrogen doesn’t exist in current tax codes. The Utah Inland Port will roll out hydrogen product applications for generators, buses and forklifts, Ballard said.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, has made funding requests inspired by her “day job” as a medical doctor “where my patients frequently complain with their difficulty breathing, especially on our bad air days.”

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, and members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus discusses air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.
Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, and members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus discusses air quality legislation and funding requests under consideration during the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah also has an issue with ozone pollution, which causes lasting health problems, she said. Her request would restore funding incentives to businesses, individuals and municipalities to replace “dirty” vehicles for cleaner options to reduce air pollution and emissions.

Briscoe is also sponsoring HB263, which would create a clean energy fund. Last week, the Biden administration released a proposal for clean energy funds. The federal government will likely distribute those funds this year or next, and Hinkins wants the state to be able to receive that money. Much of it would go to helping at-risk communities adopt energy efficiencies.

“I think that this shows that Utah’s Legislature recognizes the value of clean air. If we look at what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to create an atmosphere where we put an economic value on clean air. We have ample evidence that it impacts health, it impacts our children’s learning ability,” said Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden.

“We have to address this not only from a perspective of health and safety but also for the economic well-being of our state,” he said.

Correction: A previous version misidentified several quotes from Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, as being said by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville. It also misstated the title of Briscoe’s bill to create a clean air fund. He is sponsoring HB263, not SB133.