SALT LAKE CITY — More government workers will be out of their cars and in their home offices on days in Utah when air pollution is at unhealthy levels thanks to passage of a telecommuting bill that requires eligible state employees to stay put during certain times of the year.
That was one of the air quality boosting bills endorsed by the Utah Legislature in the session that ended Friday. Legislators also added a requirement that state agencies prove the extent to which they’ve enacted energy-efficiency measures to reduce buildings’ carbon emissions.
Lawmakers also rejected a measure that would have boosted the registration fees for electric vehicles to the highest in the nation, giving a nod that with more electric vehicles on the road, Utah’s air quality will improve in a state that struggles with episodic winter inversions and high ozone days in the summer.
Clean air advocates, however, decried the passage of a bill that would essentially prevent cities or counties from enacting ordinances prohibiting the use of certain energy choices if it is available through a viable connection.
That legislation, by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, appeared to be in response to action taken in some California cities to ban any new construction that relies on natural gas for commercial or residential heating.
Handy, in a committee hearing during the session, praised the “new energy” economy that awaits the country, but said government should not interfere with customer choice.
“When we get government in the way of these innovations and these great ideas that are happening ... I think we impede the process,” he said. “It is good policy to preserve these energy choices we should have as consumers.”
Advocates said this year’s session was a mixed bag.
“This year’s legislative session seemed to only have extremes when it came to the environment. On one hand, we saw the extension of emissions testing programs, the funding of a tax credit for alternative fuel heavy-duty vehicles and the passage of a large infrastructure package,” said Grace Olscamp, policy associate for HEAL Utah.
Olscamp criticized the passage of Handy’s energy measure but said there were victories to celebrate.
“Even with the primarily virtual session, over 1,000 citizens raised their voices against raising registration fees on electric vehicles, and the bill ultimately failed,” she said. “The fight to protect our environment and public health doesn’t end at day 45, and we will continue to keep up the fight for the other 320 days of the year.”
Lawmakers also rejected any messaging by the state of Utah that it is on board with encouraging statewide emission reduction goals, parking HCR5 by Handy in the wasteland called “rules,” early on the session.
The resolution gave a nod to the desire to embrace low or net-zero emissions to help Salt Lake City win the 2030 Winter Olympics bid, acknowledged climate change’s negative effect on vital water resources via a declining snowpack and its threat to a $12.3 billion outdoor recreation economy.
Most significantly, it endorsed acknowledgment of the recommendations in the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s Utah Roadmap to reduce carbon emissions, but lawmakers apparently felt it went too far.
“It is quite disappointing,” said Handy, who sponsored the resolution.
“I don’t think it has been a stellar year for air quality at all,” despite some measures that did succeed, he said, adding another proposal of his for air quality failed even though it had a fairly small price tag of $85,000.
Utah legislators did agree to continue to extend a helping hand to small businesses in the arena of complying with federal and state air pollution laws by continuing the Compliance Advisory Panel Program supported by advocates.
They stalled, however, in the establishment of the Utah Clean Energy Fund directed at helping rural Utah with an infusion of $1 million in one-time money directed to the Governor’s Office of Energy Development to further the development of “clean fuel” alternatives in communities dependent on fossil fuel extraction.
HB263, by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, passed a House committee unanimously but ended up in the graveyard of rules committee.
In other action, lawmakers did endorse the creation of two new state parks, particularly the Utahraptor State Park in Grand County. Supporters said creation of the park will help protect one of the most important dinosaur sites in the United States because of its massive deposits of dinosaur bones from at least 10 species found nowhere else in North America.
Utah State Parks will work in agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for oversight of the park, much like it does with about a dozen other reservoir-based state parks.
Lawmakers, in perhaps offering a carrot to the Biden administration as it directs a review of the Bears Ears National Monument boundaries reduced in 2017 by then-President Donald Trump, passed HB341 to encourage Native American tribes to explore the establishment of an advisory committee to pursue a Bears Ears visitors center to educate visitors on the importance of the areas archaeological artifacts.
The bill comes with one-time money of $17,800 for the effort.
In a move to make sure Utah’s interest in Colorado River water is protected, the Legislature also passed HB297 establishing the Colorado River Authority of Utah.
Critics complained the new entity was created to push development of the Lake Powell Pipeline, but its supporters say other states in the Colorado River Basin have similar government groups to protect their allocation of what’s been described as the hardest working river in the West, supplying water to 40 million people.
In the same vein of protecting Utah’s water assets, lawmakers endorsed HB29 to set up a statewide invasive aquatic species emergency response plan.
The measure targets the spread of quagga mussels and supports the aggressive efforts by the Utah Department of Natural Resources and other agencies battling the invasive species, which has infected the waters of Lake Powell.
Utah, too, will have a new state “stone,” with the passage of HB188 — designating honeycomb calcite for the honor. The calcite, found only in Duchesne County, is mined and transformed into a variety of items that include countertops and decorative lights because of its translucent nature.