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An aggressive set of air quality proposals is coming to the Utah Legislature

Photo of bad air over valley.
Brian Albers / KUER
“This is personal for everybody, and everybody has their stories and their reasons why air quality is important to them,” said Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, who’s sponsoring the legislation.

An aggressive air quality bill is coming to Utah’s Capitol Hill next year. Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, announced Tuesday he plans to run legislation that could cut emissions in Utah by 50% by 2030.

“Personally, sometimes as a parent, I feel guilty sitting at a soccer game with my kids out there running around, and I'm having a hard time breathing just as a spectator and noticing those effects,” Cullimore said during a press conference Tuesday. “This is personal for everybody, and everybody has their stories and their reasons why air quality is important to them.”

He said air quality is both a health and economic issue.

“Both national and international media have recognized Utah for a world class economic growth and vitality,” he said. “But in those stories, it also mentions that our bad air quality could spoil those efforts. So we can't let this problem become our national or international reputation.”

Under the legislation, high polluting cars would pay higher motor vehicle registration fees to the state. The bill would also create a program to give financial assistance to low income Utahns to buy cleaner vehicles. Another Republican tried to start a similar program last year but the legislation was dead on arrival and did not receive a public hearing. That failed bill was estimated to cost the state $6.5 million in one-time funding.

Cullimore’s bill would also create new building standards to reduce emissions and implement a cap-and-trade system. Those programs would set a maximum level of emissions and allow companies to buy the ability to pollute more from companies that are polluting less than the state’s cap.

But he cautioned the cap-and-trade system may be a hard sell in the Republican Legislature.

“The concern about cap and trade is just … this sounds like Green New Deal type stuff and those types of things that are more government mandate and oppressive type ideas,” he said. “The political reality is that cap and trade is happening. And if the state can help make use of that and make benefit of that, then let's find ways to do that and use it in a free market type way.”

Cullimore is a member of Senate leadership, which puts some weight behind the proposal. He added that he may not be able to get everything in the bill passed in the upcoming legislative session, “but if we can make incremental improvements, I think that's a big step.”

The legislation would also create an asthma fund that “holds polluters responsible for paying for medical expenses caused by pollution.” Cullimore said the money would come from “fees” created by the legislation but the details still needed to be worked out.

Isabella Errigo, a researcher and masters’ student at Brigham Young University, said a study she authored showed the dire consequences of bad air. The study, published in a peer-reviewed journal last year, found that on average Utahns lose two years from their life expectancy due to air quality.

“Not only does it affect literally every system in the human body, from our skin to our respiratory function to our mental cognition, but it also reduces lifespan by the average Utah by about two years,” she said. “That's just the general public. That's not even looking at our sensitive groups, such as our elderly or our young or are immunocompromised.”

Cullimore said the upcoming session is a unique opportunity to pass aggressive air quality legislation because the state is anticipating a lot of federal funding from the infrastructure package.

The General Session begins in mid-January.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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