Clean air policy is coming together, but with a bunch of small changes

Source, used with permission

Source, used with permission

It would be hard to say that the legislature isn’t taking some interest in air quality issues. In this session, there’s no fewer than 15 open bills and resolutions addressing various aspects of air quality in our state. If you’re expecting sweeping legislation, though, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Most of these deal with very specific changes that, while good, aren’t hugely transformative on their own. Here’s a run-down of what some of these are seeking to do.

  • HCR 7, Concurrent Resolution to Support Plans to Reduce Air Pollution in Utah: This concurrent resolution endorses the work of the Utah Air Quality Board, encourages public and private groups to adopt their own policies to reduce air pollution, and asks for more study on how to control air pollution, specifically PM2.5. As a concurrent resolution, it’s little more than a statement of position. About the best you can hope from these is that the symbolic gesture leads to more efforts to curb polluting activities.
  • HJR 23, Joint Resolution Endorsing Tier III Standards: This joint resolution urges expedited state and federal standards on tougher vehicle emissions. With 56% of PM2.5 coming from cars, targeting them is going to be inevitable. It could be a hard sell, though, as stronger standards take a while to have a real-world effect and will usually increase the up-front cost of acquiring a vehicle. As  a joint resolution, it really doesn’t have any teeth either.
  • HR 5, House Resolution on Clean-Burning Renewable Fuels: This House resolution encourages everyone to start using more biofuels. Biofuels do drop particulates significantly, but they also tend to not produce as much power and create other problems from the farming usually required to produce them.
  • HB 31, Pollution Control Amendments: This bill waives sales and use taxes for air and water pollution control equipment. While it’s good to incentivize things that reduce pollution, it’s unknown if the incentives will be enough to encourage industrial sites or point producers to buy equipment they hadn’t already planned to purchase.
  • HB 38, Resource Stewardship Amendments: HB 38 requires the Executive Director of the Department of Administrative Services to appoint a coordinator of resource stewardship. The purpose of this position is to provide coordination across state agencies to make sure that all of them are taking appropriate measures to reduce air pollution in any way they can. The coordinator will also make recommendations back to the legislature. While this could have a good effect, it also has the potential to be a “feel good” position.
  • HB 41: Clean Fuel School Buses and Infrastructure: This is a pretty specific change that appropriates money to replace any bus more than 12 years old with one that uses a clean-burning fuel such as compressed natural gas (CNG), propane, or clean diesel. It also provides money to build the infrastructure and provide the training needed to fuel and repair said buses. The state currently has over 2400 buses, some as old as 1984. It’s not a huge change, but the numbers that have been tossed around are that the vast majority of vehicle pollution comes from the oldest 10% of cars. It’s a good idea to make sure the state isn’t a part of that.
  • HB 61, Clean Air Programs: Like electric cars? The state could help your business acquire them. There’s a fund out there to help businesses finance acquisition of clean air vehicles and this bill would include electric and hybrid vehicles as well as eliminate any matching fund requirements to qualify. I’m not so hot on the state being in this particular business as it seems to socialize the cost of businesses taking care of their own pollution. Odds are good that this little-known program may have very limited effect.
  • HB 121, Air Quality Revisions: For quite some time, Utah hasn’t been allowed to come up with air standards stronger than the EPA. This bill would change that and allow Utah to come up with rules more applicable to our unique geography. The authority for this rule-making would lie with the Division of Air Quality.
  • HB 229, Air Contaminant Definition Change: Wrangling over word definitions is nothing new, nor is panic about those changes. HB 229 makes a small change to the term “air contaminant” to specifically exclude natural components of the atmosphere including carbon dioxide under 500 ppm. I don’t know enough either way to comment on what this would do or what effect it would have.
  • HB 271, Motor Vehicle Emissions: This bill greatly tightens the operating requirements for all vehicles by restricting the amount of visible emissions they can produce. This would have the strongest effect on older commercial trucks and probably remove them from the road. Similar to HB 41, it’s effectively targeting the oldest vehicles on the road responsible for the greatest amount of pollution.
  • HB 388, Amendments to Transportation Funding: Yes, transportation funding. This gives local communities the ability to create a tax to fund public transit. The theory is, of course, that better public transit options will be more efficient at moving people than individual cars. That only works with enough ridership. You’re otherwise moving around a bunch of empty trains and buses, something that definitely does not help.
  • SCR 9, Concurrent Resolution Concerning Proposed Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards: This resolution asks the EPA to consider using separate standards for coal and other fossil fuel power plants when creating rules for greenhouse gas emissions. The bill is worded specifically to push for keeping coal on the table provided that it stays clean. Since Utah has a lot of coal-fired power plants, this is particularly relevant to our interests. It doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on PM2.5 since coal plants are very far from the Wasatach Front and the bill only addresses carbon dioxide.
  • SB 64, Air Quality Rules and Penalties: A copy of HB 121 with some more teeth. In addition to allowing the state to come up with stronger than federal air standards, it also greatly increases the penalties for violating air quality standards. This would probably be more of a motivation to clean up pollution than tax incentives. It also bans incineration of medical waste within 5 miles of residential areas.
  • SB 196, Medical Waste Incineration Prohibition: Prohibits medical waste incineration like SB 64, but within 2 miles of residential areas and only for new facilities. If both SB 64 and SB 196 pass, it could cause confusion about which provision takes precedence. This prohibition has been sparked by Stericycle in North Salt Lake.
  • SB 243, Air Quality Programs: Creates a new utility fee to fund air quality programs. The money would be spent on public education and grants to improve air quality.

As you can see, there’s a lot of action being taken on air quality, but it’s all from relatively small changes that add up to be an overall moderate change. Did I miss any bills under consideration? Leave them in the comments.

The opinions expressed in the above post are those of the author alone.