The Utah Legislature’s bipartisan Clean Air Caucus met Wednesday afternoon to touch on the almost 40 bills, resolutions and appropriations they say will combat the state’s dirty air.

The clean air caucus was started in 2013 after a spate of bad inversions and consists of Republican and Democratic representatives and senators, hailing from Salt Lake City to the rural corners of the state.

“We don’t agree on everything. But we’ve done a pretty good job on depoliticizing a lot of the issues,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.

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TRAX riders take a train during Free Fare February in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Free public transportation across all of UTA’s network is available for the entire month of February. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

From bills aimed at promoting electric vehicles to a carbon tax, here are some of the key pieces of legislation to expect from the Clean Air Caucus during the 2022 legislative session.

Incentivizing public transportation

Free fares forever?

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, has an ambitious plan to eliminate fares for all public transportation operated by the Utah Transit Authority — that includes buses, FrontRunner and TRAX.

Regardless of the time or date, HB164 would prohibit UTA services from imposing a fare in an attempt to boost ridership and scale back the use of single occupant vehicles. The bill doesn’t apply to other state public transportation agencies.

Public transportation is free during the month of February, which Briscoe says is a helpful window into how residents would respond to his legislation.

“One of the things we’re all excited about is when the month is over, is to look (at ridership),” he said.

“People want to see something like this ... it wasn’t part of the governor’s budget, but maybe in a year or two it will be,” he told the Deseret News.

Linking affordable housing to public transportation

Sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, SB140 would build on the existing Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zone Act, designed to spur development of mixed-use, multifamily and affordable housing developments near FrontRunner rail stations.

Harper’s Housing and Transit Zone Amendments would allow those zones around light rail and bus facilities, requiring some of the housing to be for low-income families.

An electric car charges at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on June 4, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Promoting cleaner vehicle emissions

Tax credits for electric vehicles

Sponsored by Rep Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, HB221 would offer an annual tax credit to anyone looking to buy an electric car or plug-in electric hybrid.

“One of the best things you can do to help clean up our air and to help reduce emissions is to transition to cleaner transportation,” Harrison said.

  • The bill would offer $3,000 for the purchase of a new qualifying passenger vehicle.
  • Qualifying used vehicles would be eligible for a $2,000 credit.
  • Qualifying motorcycles and leased vehicles would be eligible for $1,500.
  • Leased and used motorcycles would be eligible for $1,000.

The credits would be available starting Jan. 1, 2023. The program would expire after three years, but not before a legislative review.

Giving more power to the inland port authority for emission regulation

Diesel-powered trucks and locomotives are one of the main sources of ozone and particulate pollution, which Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, says leads to air in the Salt Lake Valley that violates Environmental Protection Agency standards.

And the proposed inland port would ramp up diesel emissions and subsequent air pollution in the valley.

There are available pollution control technologies, she said. “The adverse effects of the inland port on Salt Lake Valley air could be mitigated if these vehicles use low emissions technologies,” Bennion said.

But the inland port authority has stated it doesn’t have the power to impose those regulations when setting the terms and conditions for an entity to use a port facility. Her amendment would grant it the authority to do so.

Working with landlords and tenants to install charging stations

Sponsored by Briscoe, HB189 creates a mechanism for tenants to “work with the owner of the large apartment complexes or condominiums, in order to plug in their own hybrid there on charging stations,” he said.

The bill would prevent a landlord from prohibiting a renter from paying for and installing their own charging station, or levying an additional fee related to the charging station.

The bill also makes it easier for renters to work with property owners if installing a charging station in their current parking spot is not an option, requiring them to assign the tenant a new parking spot that is compatible with electric vehicle infrastructure.

Mitigating fossil fuels

A ‘modest’ carbon tax

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, hasn’t released a bill on what he calls a “modest tax on fossil fuels” yet, but during Wednesday’s press conference he gave a brief overview of what it would look like.

Building on a 2019 proposal from Briscoe, the bill would:

  • Levy a 1 cent tax per kilowatt hour of energy.
  • Add a “couple cents” to each gallon of gas.

About a third of the revenue generated would go toward local pollution prevention measures, which include making public transit free for all Utahns and promoting rural development. The rest would go toward reducing existing taxes.

“This is the kind of policy that will proactively support clean air and put cash in the pockets of everyday working families in the state of Utah,” Kitchen said.

Support for a carbon fee and dividend

Some form of a tax on fossil fuels has been debated on the national stage for years, and Rep. Ray Ward’s HJR3 intends to throw the legislature’s support behind a carbon fee and dividend.

The resolution “acknowledges that the United States, one of our great strengths is as an innovator,” the Bountiful Republican said. “Our manufacturers are disadvantaged if we are competing against other places that make more carbon pollution than we do, and we don’t have something to balance that out.”

In short, a carbon fee and dividend would impose a tax on fossil fuels, then funnel that revenue back to households in the form of a dividend.

“We need a dividend back to our people,” Ward said.

Carbon sequestration

In what he calls a “win, win win,” Rep Steve Handy’s HB244 would authorize the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to regulate the “geologic storage of carbon.”

“This is a win for the environment, this is a win for industry and it’s a win for government,” said Handy, R-Layton.

Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere where it will ultimately contribute to climate change. Geological carbon sequestration is when that carbon is injected underground into porous rock formations.

“It moves us towards the decarbonization as quickly as we can, injecting it into the earth,” Handy said of the bill, which is currently in the House Rules Committee.

The health implications of bad air

Putting a price on smog-induced health complications

Utah’s bad air can lead to asthma, decreased lung function, heart attacks and a weakened immune system, which can decrease life expectancy by an average of two years.

“As a public health professional, I have a very vested interest in taking a good, hard, close look at the health impacts of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, who on Wednesday said she was drafting legislation to put a dollar amount on the health implications of Utah’s bad air.

The goal is to have a “meaningful quantification that is applicable to the state of Utah” should lawmakers decide what entity is responsible for those bad health outcomes.

The bill hasn’t been finalized yet, but Dailey-Provost says she is optimistic it will be soon.

Fighting dust from the drying Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking, exposing toxic, heavy metal-riddled dust on the now dry lakebed. The dust can become airborne during wind events, with storms dumping it along the Wasatch Front.

Saving the ‘otherworldly’ place of Utah’s declining inland sea

The health implications can be severe, with heavy metals like arsenic linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Layers of salt left behind from the water helps contain some of that dust, but off-road vehicles illegally driving on the lakebed pose a threat to that sliver of protection.

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, has a bill in the works that would clarify that off-road vehicles of any kind are not allowed on the receded lakebed. The bill would also employ a full-time law enforcement officer to patrol the west side of the Great Salt Lake, while increasing signage and remote cameras.

“It tries to nip in the bud something that’s a burgeoning issue,” Owens said.

Smog settles over the Salt Lake Valley during an inversion as seen from the Salt Lake City Cemetery in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. HB109, sponsored by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, would allow physicians to indicate that poor air quality contributed to an individual’s death on the death certificate. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Bad air as a cause of death?

Handy has a bill currently in the House Rules Committee that would allow a physician to include air pollution on an individual’s death certificate.

HB109, Handy says, would help lawmakers gauge what populations are most at risk during bad air days, and draft effective policy going forward.

“We know that sensitive populations, they can be in real trouble and even die,” he said. “And we’re working with the Department of Health to add that as an option on a death certificate. ... Everyone says it’s a great idea. We just want to figure out how to get it right.”

Utah’s poor air quality shortens life expectancy by two years. A new bill could help understand the true cost

Bills to watch

There are a number of bills and resolutions that have yet to be finalized. Details are slim, but here are some we’re keeping an eye on:

  • The Utah Clean Energy Fund, sponsored by Briscoe: A bill to create an independent state entity to oversee a “public-private partnership fund” that would give loans promoting the use of clean energy.
  • Alliterative Fuel Heavy Equipment Tax, sponsored by Bennion: Gives businesses and individuals a nonrefundable tax credit if they purchase alternative fuel or electric heavy equipment. It would also authorize the Utah Inland Port Authority to provide matching grants to anyone that applies for the credit.
  • Concurrent Resolution Encouraging Low Carbon Cement, sponsored by Handy: Calls on Utah cities and counties, and state entities, to ask for low carbon cement when putting projects out to bid. Low carbon cement can reduce carbon emissions by roughly 66% during construction.
  • Mining Permit Amendments, sponsored by Owens: Would prevent mining operations close to urban areas.
  • State Electric Vehicle Purchase Program, sponsored by Ward: Makes the state buy electric vehicles “when prudent,” a definition that will be left up to the state.
  • Air Quality Improvement Amendments, sponsored by Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy: Expands the utility ratepayer-based program for low-income households, proposes a matching grant program to eliminate diesel engines and creates a Division of Environmental Quality rebate program.