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Taxing Carbon Emissions Has Bipartisan Support In Utah, But Lawmakers Seem Unlikely To Do It

A photo of air pollution in Salt Lake City.
Brian Albers
Air pollution is a persistent concern in Utah. It’s one effect of climate change some hope a tax on emissions could help curb.

As the impacts of climate change become increasingly apparent across the country — from devastating wildfires to historic drought — the need to act is becoming more urgent every day.

Still, federal and state leaders have largely avoided the kinds of major investments and policy decisions that would lead to significant emissions reductions.

While the divide has largely been political, with Democrats historically driving the conversation, one major climate solution has at least some bipartisan support in Utah — a tax on emissions.

Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, sees it as a simple, market-based solution that could produce largescale results.

“If that's our policy goal is to not warm the planet with those emissions, then it becomes a very simple philosophical statement — we're asking polluters to pay some of the cost of their pollution,” Ward said at a panel Tuesday on climate solutions hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

He said imposing a cost on carbon emissions would drive companies and governments to seek out cleaner and ultimately cheaper alternatives to fossil fuels, whether that’s investing in nuclear energy, carbon sequestration or other kinds of renewable energy.

It could also have a global impact if done at the national level, by adding a fee — or border adjustment — to imported goods from countries without a carbon tax.

“If you just raised prices here domestically, then we're just going to export all that manufacturing to another country,” said Logan Mitchell, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah. “That's why you need to have a border adjustment, so that really energy intensive products are assessed the same carbon price in other countries.”

Despite more widespread support for a carbon tax, it’s still a challenge to implement

Ward said climate change denial still plays a role, largely in the Republican party. That’s a major reason a 2017 proposal to tax carbon emissions failed in the Utah House, he said. Most climate-related bills in the 2021 Legislative session didn’t even get a hearing.

“We're not seeing a lot of legislative action,” said Tom Moyer, a climate activist who lobbies at the state and federal level. “Utah is moving ahead on wind and solar. [Lawmakers] funded electric vehicle infrastructure. They funded some transit-oriented development, but they haven't been nearly as aggressive on emissions as we would like them to be.”

He said he expects more climate bills on the table during the next Legislative session. But for now, market forces are driving the biggest changes, as the cost of renewable energy prices continues to drop.

Moyer said while a carbon tax in Utah is unlikely and would probably not have a significant impact on global emissions, it could send a strong political message to the rest of the country.

“We're at this political impasse in the country on climate change,” he said. “Utah has the potential to have an outsized impact because we're a Republican-dominated state, which is also very pragmatic on issues like energy and immigration. So I see huge potential for our state to shift the conversation nationally.”

Utah also has the benefit of having strong conservative support for climate action in the federal government, such as Rep. John Curtis, R-UT, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, who Moyer noted is one of the strongest Republican supporters of a carbon tax.

While bipartisanship appears broken nationally, he said he’s hopeful that young conservatives will push the party towards more acceptance of and action towards climate progress.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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