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Clean Cars Help Utahns Cut Smog Now

Utah Department of Transportation

New clean fuel, clean car standards promise to be the single best way to clean up Utah’s air. State leaders say they want to accelerate these so-called Tier 3 rules in Utah. Yet, car buyers are already taking matters into their own hands, at the steering wheel.

Credit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
When Utah leaders talk about the huge benefits of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Tier 3 rules, they often refer to this map. Northern Utah counties stand out as the biggest beneficiaries of the clean vehicle, clean fuels standards that are being phased in beginning in 2017.

Another air-scrubbing storm has just passed through Salt Lake City. But Tom Hemmersmeier is still thinking about clean cars.

General manager of the Jerry Seiner Chevy/Kia dealership near I-15, he says smoggy air is already driving customers to low-smog models. Hemmersmeier points to the federal government’s smog rating -- right next to the miles-per-gallon average.

“We’re going to take a look at a 2013 Kia Optima hybrid,” he says. “It’s a smog-rated vehicle, has a 8 rating by the manufacturer, which means it’s one of the cleanest vehicles on the road.”

Hemmersmeier is like many people dismayed by the Salt Lake Valley’s air pollution. Winter smog aggravates his son’s asthma, and that makes it personal for the car dealer.

“I think we all have a responsibility to the environment,” he says. “So, yeah, we certainly feel better about selling cars that are cleaner for the environment as well as the consumer feels better about their purchase, that they’re making a difference.”

Cars, trucks and the gasoline they run on generate more than half of northern Utah’s pollution.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has approved new clean car, clean fuel regulations, called “Tier 3.” People started talking about it at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality around a year ago.

“Tier 3 is proposed to start with the 2017 vehicle model year and to have a new fuel that accompanies that,” says Glade Sowards, an expert on the tailpipe controls for the Utah Division of Air Quality. “Tier 3 is both vehicles and fuels. And not only do you get the benefit over time as more of those new vehicles are sold, but you get an immediate benefit from lower-sulfur fuel that is burned in our existing fleet.”

Under Tier 3, Sowards explains, refineries must cut the sulfur content in gasoline from thirty parts per million to ten.

And carmakers must crank out more clean-exhaust vehicles. A new car will cost around $72 more, EPA says, and gas will cost under a penny a gallon more. By 2025, new cars and trucks are expected to pollute eighty percent less.

“It’s just so much bigger than most of the strategies we’ve looked at,” says Sowards. “It stands out. It stands alone as about the most important thing we can do.”

"Just imagine what it would be like in an inversion today if four-fifths of the cars were just shut off."

  He isn’t alone in touting the benefits of Tier 3.

Bob Grow helps guide the state’s air quality through the planning think tank, Envision Utah and Governor Gary Herbert’s Clean Air Action Team. He talks about an EPA map showing how Tier 3 would help northern Utah more than anywhere else.

“Just imagine what it would be like in an inversion today if four-fifths of the cars were just shut off,” says Grow, who wants to jumpstart Tier 3 ahead of EPA’s timetable. “That’s how much difference that standard would make. “We need to fix this problem quickly. We can’t have it fester for years while we struggle to just get under the line.

“We need to find a way to actually drive down the levels of pollutants in our air so that we can have new businesses here,” he continues, “so our children can have jobs, so that we are all comfortable that we are meeting health standards, so that people can enjoy themselves even on wintery days if they want to go out and exercise. For all sorts of reasons, we need to fix this.”

Clean-air activists have called Governor Gary Herbert “courageous” for endorsing something so politically radioactive for a Republican. After all, it’s an environmental regulation coming down from a Democratic president’s administration.

But Utah’s refineries fret about costs, since they’ve already spent around $1 billion in the past decade to clean up their operations.

Mike Astin is environmental manager for HollyFrontier’s Woods Cross refinery. He’s skeptical Utah will get cleaner fuels faster.

“Well, the governor has indicated that he’d like us to provide that at an earlier date, but it’s not a matter of going out and turning the dial down on the sulfur,” Astin says. “It would actually require some additional facilities.”

Holly is already producing gasoline that is cleaner than current standards, according to Astin. But he says the refinery would have spend $100 million dollars more to cut sulfur further. And running that sulfur-reducing equipment would cause even more emissions. Astin says that’s not allowed under Holly’s state pollution permits.

“We don’t have the emissions capacity to add more equipment beyond what we currently have permitted.”

On Capitol Hill in Salt Lake, leaders worry that clean fuel might detour Utah because of quirks in EPA’s regulations.

One lets small refineries like Utah’s to put off the clean-gas requirement for three years. Another allows petroleum companies to average the sulfur content in their gas among all of their refineries, so there’s nothing guaranteeing the gasoline coming to Utah is Tier-3 clean.

“EPA has determined that no state benefits more from Tier 3 cars and fuels than Utah,” says Alan Matheson, Herbert’s environmental advisor and negotiator-in-chief on Tier 3. “And yet there’s a provision in the proposed rule that would largely deny Utah the benefits of the program.”

"We're not aware of any other strategy that can create the air-quality benefits for less impact on people's lives than the transition to Tier 3 cars and fuels."

  He’s been talking with EPA about a regulatory deal. He’s also talked with the refineries about voluntary sulfur reductions and state incentives. Governor Herbert, says Matheson, wants Tier 3 gas in Utah as soon as possible.

“We’re not aware of any other strategy that can create the air-quality benefits for less impact on people’s lives than the transition to Tier 3 cars and fuels,” he says.

“You’re gonna get a certain amount of people getting out of their cars and riding transit, and that’s good. We’re going to take steps on wood-burning and commercial sources and industrial sources, and that’s good. But, if we are really going to make a difference, we’re going to have to get those people as they drive to contribute less to our air pollution problem.”

Back at the car dealership, Tom Hemmersmeier thumbs through a printout of cars that have smog ratings of 8, 9 or 10 – they are Tier 3-clean now, and they can be found on the lots of Utah car dealers.

“The great thing is, within each segment or size car, there’s vehicles that have a high smog rating,” says Hemmersmeier. “So, the Chevrolet Spark. We also offer the Nissan Leaf….”

Minivans, sports cars, sedans, heavy-duty trucks – his printout includes more than one hundred cars and trucks that already meet Tier 3 pollution standards.

And the Utahns buying them are already helping Utah solve one of its biggest problems.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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