How should Utah use the $100 million earmarked for air quality improvements? Experts weigh in

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah finds itself mired in another winter inversion, experts Wednesday proposed a series of solutions to Utah’s air quality problem at an event hosted by the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute in conjunction with the Deseret News and the Utah Clean Air Partnership.

Some changes are things individuals can incorporate into their daily lifestyle, such as limiting the amount of time cars are left idling, carpooling or taking public transit to work, and considering alternate forms of transportation such as electric vehicles or biking, said UCAIR Director Thom Carter.

However, Carter and Gardner Policy Institute senior energy analyst Thomas Holst also issued a call to action to local and state governments, one that could be answered by the $100 million recently set aside in Utah's 2020 budget to address the air quality problem.

“In Utah, we sit on abundant resources and we should view them as a gateway to using renewable energy,” Holst said, referring to the state's large quantity of natural gas.

Holst suggested other counties follow the clean energy road being paved by Beaver County, which has a population of around 6,500 residents but is leveraging 15,000 acres of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass alternative energy projects with the ability to power over 250,000 homes.

The panel discussion was born out of a series of in-depth reports on Utah’s air pollution predicament by Deseret News reporter Erica Evans. Panelists included Evans, Holst and Carter. Deseret News Editor Doug Wilks moderated the event, which was also the January installment of the Institute's monthly Newsmaker Breakfast series.

A main focus of the event was Evans’ trip in August 2018 to Oslo, Norway — a city with a population and geographic conditions similar to those of Salt Lake City — to learn what steps Norwegians are taking to improve their air quality could be implemented along the Wasatch Front. The trip was made possible through a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

“Norway has made the health of their citizens a priority above cost or convenience,” Evans told the group.

She cited Norway’s “greedy method,” which refers to city officials’ propensity to make small changes whenever possible instead of waiting for long-term, perfect solutions that may never arise. For example, instead of drawing lanes based on the minimum width allocated for bikes, city planners have decided to draw them based on the minimum width for cars. The rest of the road is reserved for bikes.

The panelists said Utah still has a long way to go in following Norway’s example. Carter cited a 2018 UCAIR poll which revealed that 52 percent of Utahns want to do their part to improve air quality, but only if it’s convenient and saves them money.

“We need to continue to make progress,” Carter said. “We’re in the early stages of an inversion right now, and we need everyone to do small things” to make a difference.

Inversions often occur in valleys in the winter, when a layer of cold air filled with dangerous pollutants and particulate matter is trapped underneath a layer of warm air. The resulting gray cloud of smog and pollutants can result in adverse health effects ranging from asthma to lung cancer. A recent University of Utah Health study showed that women living along the Wasatch Front had a 16 percent higher risk of miscarriage due to short-term air pollution exposure.

UCAIR found people are most likely to change their behavior and habits in order to reduce emissions after learning how air quality affects health, Carter said.

“There needs to be a personal link, such as you or someone you know getting sick” because of poor air quality, he added.

However, people’s ability to change behavior is also dependent, to a certain extent, on public infrastructure and economic incentives.

“It always helps when there’s an incentive given by the federal or state government,” such as those for solar panels, Holst said.

Last year, one such incentive was rolled back in Utah when a credit of $1,500 given to buyers of electric vehicles was replaced with a $122 electric vehicle registration fee.

Carter said situations like these are an opportunity to engage with the state Legislature. “Do we ask them to go and scrap that fee because we need more electric vehicles?” he asked. “We have to put people in the position to make better choices. We need to push people a little bit to get them to be a little bit better.”

In December 2018, Gov. Gary Herbert proposed to earmark a historic high of $100 million for air quality projects in the 2020 fiscal budget. What form those projects will take is unclear, but the panelists had some ideas of areas that should be prioritized.

Evans, who tested Salt Lake City’s public infrastructure by going for a week without a car, said that transit systems need to be more comprehensive, with better weekend and evening service, in order to be a viable alternative to driving.

Holst emphasized the importance of investing in and tapping into renewable energy sources, following in the steps of Beaver County, which received $140 million in federal funding in 2018 to build the country's first laboratory dedicated to developing geothermal reservoirs.

“Beaver County is the renewable energy capital of the world,” Holst added. “There's money going into its coffers to improve infrastructure and improve educational opportunities. It's good for the citizens.”

At the same time, local communities can and should do their part to make a change, said Soren Simonsen, an audience member and executive director of the Jordan River Commission.

“The state Legislature is central, but I believe that more can happen at the local level,” he said. “Every small city and municipality along the Wasatch Front should have a transit and bicycle plan and air quality standards. That would really begin to move the dial.”