It is not news that Salt Lake City has been consistently and repeatedly labelled as having some of the worst air quality in the nation, and the public residing in metropolitan Utah, encompassing several counties along the state’s Wasatch Front, has steadily been ratcheting up the pressure for solutions from lawmakers.
The new Speaker of the House, Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper), has vowed that significant progress will be made this year on air pollution remedies. In his opening remarks to the newly convened body of policymakers, he rhetorically asked his 75 (mostly Republican) representatives, “For how many years have we talked about the same issues? For how many legislative sessions have we tinkered around the edges because the challenges seemed insurmountable in just 45 days?” By law, Utah’s bi-cameral legislative branch meets for just over six weeks, and has to establish a balanced budget during that time before adjourning mid-March.
In a state where industrial enterprise and energy exporting are main economic drivers, Utah may be beginning to understand that a change to its collective thinking about environmental quality is mandatory. For years up to and including the present, Utah has been unable to enact more stringent regulatory efforts than those provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency, not only because state laws are in place forbidding that, but because industry is stitched-into everyday life and even in the virtue behind the Beehive State’s one-word motto: “Industry.” Pollution regulations are overseen by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, which has an air quality board influenced by representatives of businesses like Tesoro and Rio Tinto Kennecott. In recent years, appointments to that board seem to reflect a more flexible management structure.
“Let’s not subject ourselves to the ‘Groundhog Day’ experience where we adjourn… and think, ‘I hope we get that big problem solved next time.'” Hughes had said as he took the reigns of Utah’s 61st legislative session on Monday.
But air pollution in Utah is a big problem and has continued to be one.
Mothers, physicians, outdoor retailers and others have organized to tell the state’s officials they will not be a part of “Groundhog Day,” where the years’ events are repeated over and over and over without significant progress. A third annual citizen’s rally will be held Saturday calling for cleaner air – a symbol of the steadily increasing pressure on lawmakers to act.
That pressure is starting to weigh on lawmakers, as it was the catalyst for a press conference convened on Thursday with a bi-partisan group known as the “Clean Air Caucus” which consists thirty lawmakers – or roughly thirty percent of the total legislative votes in the legislature. The caucus presented an inventory of 17 proposed bills in addition to 6 appropriation requests totaling more than $5.4 million in expenses.
Proposals from the caucus include increases to retail, per-tire sales taxes, school bus conversions, incineration regulations, and tax credits for CNG or propane conversions specifically for automobiles. Perhaps the most sweeping legislation discussed at Thursday’s press conference was the effort to allow the state to change its law about how far the Department of Environmental Quality may go to regulate past the EPA rules and pollution standards.
Proponents of more strict controls over industry say these restrictions are sorely needed because Utah has a unique environment which traps pollution in atmospheric inversions. The federal government, via the EPA, has told Utah that it is uniquely qualified for so-called “Tier-three” fuels being developed by 2017. These fuels allow less tailpipe pollutants accounting for almost half of the “PM 2.5” (particulate matter) released into the air. The auto-industry is complying by developing automobile engine specifications for this type of fuel, but as of this writing none have been sent to auto retailers in the state.
With 40 days left in the session, lawmakers will not have the option of saying that they were not presented with options regarding air quality. The real question is, will the Clean Air Caucus be able to prevent a repeat of sessions past or will Utah be repeating the same effort all over again?