Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

In our opinion: Utah needs clean air fuel standards now

Deseret News editorial

Published: Sun, March 2 12:00 a.m. MST

 A poor air quality sign is posted over a highway in Salt Lake City.

A poor air quality sign is posted over a highway in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Bowmer, Associated Press Archives)

Utah residents are all too familiar with the phenomenon of inversions that trap cold air beneath warm air and significantly contribute to the problem of air pollution. Indeed, there have been several days this winter when Utah had the worst air quality in the country. This is why Gov. Gary Herbert and a range of policymakers have put forth specific measures to address our region’s air quality.

The most important of these recommendations is that Utah move to embrace the so-called “Tier 3” fuel and vehicle standards called for by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We need these standards now, and cannot wait until the EPA requires them for the nation as a whole.

Tier 3 standards reduce sulfur content in gasoline to 10 parts per million, down from the current 30 parts per million. They would also establish cleaner-burning emission controls on new vehicles. The standards yield dramatic reductions in levels of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds. Although all cars benefit from requiring Tier 3 fuel immediately, the benefits are dramatically improved as Tier 3 cars begin to enter the market. Indeed, the Utah Air Quality Board projects this action will reduce pollutants by up to 80 percent: That’s like taking four cars off the road for every fifth one that remains.

Nationwide, the EPA estimates that Tier 3 will produce $33 billion in annual health benefits by the end of the next decade, the equivalent of taking 33 million cars off the road. But the benefits to the Wasatch Front in Utah are far more pronounced: of the seven U.S. counties that benefit the most from Tier 3 fuel, all are in northern Utah.

Other air-quality steps should follow as well. We like a recommendation by Envision Utah, a public-private partnership, to add a quarter-cent sales tax along the Wasatch Front to expand mass transit. The Salt Lake-Ogden-Provo metropolitan area already has an impressive mass-transit nucleus in place, combining light rail, commuter rail and buses. The Utah Transit Authority says 25 percent of people who work in downtown Salt Lake City commute there by transit.

That is an indicator that Utahns have a desire to leave their cars home when it’s convenient. It’s time not only to increase the percentage of transit riders downtown, but to provide realistic alternatives for people who work in other parts of the Wasatch Front as well. UTA says another quarter cent tax would allow an expansion to increase ridership by another 50 percent, growing to 90 percent by five years. This would replace 3,600 tons of auto emissions per year.

In addition to all this, the state should expand its variable toll lanes. Currently, only the HOV lane on I-15 imposes such a toll on drivers who have registered for the toll and who do not otherwise qualify for free access to the lane for having two or more people in the car. These tolls change depending on congestion levels.

Congestion pricing provides an incentive for people to drive during off-peak hours, reducing the pollution caused by slow-moving traffic during rush hours. But the policy would work better if it covered more lanes on more freeways.

These changes should be in the state’s long-term plans. But putting Tier 3 fuel requirements in place now is the lynchpin of that process. They will impost costs on fuel refineries to upgrade. Some insist the costs aren’t worth the benefits. Others are concerned about Utah’s adoption of these standards prior to the nation as a whole.

Those views are short-sighted. Utah already is an island by virtue of the geography of the Wasatch Front, which causes dirty air to be trapped in the atmosphere in larger amounts than would be found in flatter terrain. Utahns face greater health risks as a result — and Tier 3 standards offer a more immediate impact in Utah than anywhere else. 

Lawmakers should ensure that they are part of the solution and not the problem. They should support Herbert’s Tier 3 standards, and consider a quarter-cent transit tax hike and congestion pricing.

Most importantly, all of us must not fall into the trap of resigning ourselves to inevitable dirty air in northern Utah. This problem can be solved.

1. Michael Roche
Provo, UT,
March 2, 2014

Can you cover the costs of Tier 3 standards in more detail? You make the benefits sound great, but gloss over the costs. If refineries must pay more to refine fuel to Tier 3 standards, then they will pass the costs on to Utahns by increasing fuel prices. Can we estimate the price of Tier 3 standard fuel relative to less-refined fuel? Also, if auto makers have to add equipment to cars to meet Tier 3 standards, auto makers will raise car prices. Cars with the new equipment will also probably lose fuel efficiency. Can we estimate how much these changes will increase car prices and decrease fuel efficiency? Also, what happens when a Utah resident buys an out-of-state model or drives an older car? Will he have to retro-fit it with Tier 3 standard emission-reducing equipment?

I hate our poor winter air quality as much as any hippie. I just like to know the trouble I'm getting in to before I vote for change.

2. Baron Scarpia
Logan, UT,
March 2, 2014

I was just reading how Tesla is searching for a location for its proposed $5 BILLION battery factory for its electric vehicles and associated solar company (Solar City), and Utah was not in consideration because Tesla is seeking a place where it can procure significant amounts of renewable energy immediately to run the factory. Ironically, its seeking our surrounding states -- Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado (as well as Texas) -- mostly all RED states that are rapidly growing their renewable energy industries for the 21st century.

Once again, Utah's dirty air and "day late, dollar short" attitude on renewable energy has lost us another opportunity for economic development. Utah is ranked as one of the best states for solar, but we're too focused on 20th century fossil fuels, hoping oil prices continue to go up so that we can develop our dirty, water-intensive and expensive tar sands for high-priced oil when surrounding states are moving on to 21st century technology.

Maybe if we're lucky, we'll attract another nuke dump or coal mining machine factory or some other laggard 20th century energy industry to keep "the flame" alive on old energy of the past...

3. LDS Tree-Hugger
Farmington, UT,
March 2, 2014

Boy -- did the Deseret News editors step over the popular opinion on this one!

Don't they realize out-of-state businesses, citizens and tourists can't or won't bribe or lobby out State Legislature,
OR that REAL Patriots
and REAL Conservatives
seriously think pollution and better air quality is all just a HOAX used by the Democrats to win votes?

4. stevo123
slc, ut,
March 2, 2014

Perhaps the easiest and most cost effective way to help our poor air is to greatly incentivize Hybrid, electric, and natural gas vehicles. Alas, the legislature wants to punish this by increasing by raising taxes (fees) on these vehicles. This makes no sense at all.

5. CPA Howard
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA,
March 2, 2014

If Tier 3 is the answer why does California still have unclean air. The cost of cleaning the air will be borne by those who can least afford it. In CA our gas is ~ 50 cents per gallon than Utah because to hit tier 3 levels we have specially formulated gas that is only produced in CA. The cost to build a new refinery is so high, its been over 30 years since the last refinery was built, so every time a refinery goes off line, gas prices shot up 5 to 10 cents a gallon.

I agree public transit is the answer, but not with an increase to the sales tax because it hurt those at the bottom where the marginal value of the dollar is higher to someone at the bottom vs the middle class.

Be careful where you go with because with every government program there are unintended consequences. CA setup CA Air Resources Board to regulate air pollution. Even though the air quality has greatly improved, its not enough and will never be enough. They micro manage to the point the fire pits at the beaches in LA and Orange county are being removed.