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After last week’s bad inversion, here are Utah lawmakers’ air quality proposals

The inversion hanging over Salt Lake City as seen from the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Feb. 4, 2023.
Renee Bright
The inversion hanging over Salt Lake City as seen from the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Feb. 4, 2023.

A winter inversion is nothing new in Utah, but last week’s certainly got everyone’s attention. There were several days of orange and red warnings in the Salt Lake Valley that kept many indoors.

The gross air also follows the release of a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that found a single company, U.S. Magnesium, could be responsible for up to 25% of the pollution that contributes to winter smog along the Wasatch Front.

So what are lawmakers up to this year to deal with the air?

Democratic Rep. Andrew Stoddard, Sandy, has put forth a new bill, HB220, that seeks to cut emissions along the Wasatch Front by 50% by 2030.

“It's a huge bill,” Stoddard said. “I really wanted to shoot my shot with it. Just put it all out there and say, ‘hey, in my dream world, here's what we would get passed.’”

Later, during a Feb. 8 news conference, Stoddard then said his original bill has been “pared down” and will now focus more on industrial bromine emissions in response to the NOAA study.

“Thanks to the wonderful studies we've had recently and seen how much that contributes to our air pollution inversion, we figure that's where we can get the most bang for our buck,” he said. “We're currently in the process of working on a substitute. We've been working together with House majority and minority leadership to be able to find something that we can get through and get broad support on.”

The bill has yet to secure a committee hearing.

Before he announced the bill’s shift, Stoddard originally proposed curbing emissions by incentivizing the purchase of cleaner cars, prohibiting wood-burning stoves and implementing stronger emission requirements for residential and non-residential buildings, among other changes. Another Republican-sponsored bill, HB301, would appear to do just the opposite of what Stoddard was proposing. It would reduce taxes on gasoline and impose a tax on electric vehicle charging. That bill has also yet to be assigned a committee hearing.

Other bills and appropriations were also announced by the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus.

Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi has filed a request for funding that would further research electric vehicle usage statewide and develop software to report on user experiences, charging locations and charging times.

“My goal would be that we could travel from one corner of the state to the next corner of the state in an electric vehicle without having fear of getting stranded,” he said.

Free public transit for a year is also back on the table. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is sponsoring an appropriation request by Gov. Spencer Cox for $25.5 million.

Weiler said the proposal could be significant for his district, which encompasses the North Salt Lake and Bountiful communities.

We've got two freeways through those narrow corridors.” he explained. “We don't have room for a third one. And so the only way that we're going to manage future growth through my district is to get more people to ride the train. And there are barriers of getting people to do that the first time. And I sincerely believe that if we made it free for a year, we'll get a lot more people trying it out.”

Even though it’s backed by the Governor, Weiler’s request could face some opposition. House GOP leadership has said there is not a lot of enthusiasm for the proposal. One piece of legislation that is moving forward is a Senate Resolution to discourage drivers from letting their cars idle.

Some municipalities already have no-idling ordinances in place. Although the resolution lacks any enforcement mechanism, it has caused at least one lawmaker to change their behavior.

“When I learned it a few years ago, I changed my habits,” said sponsor Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan. “And, you know, I hope that a gentle encouragement in partnership with businesses and hospitals and schools will help.”

The resolution passed unanimously in the Senate on Monday and awaits further discussion in the House.

When it comes to broader steps to address air quality, stakeholders say the issue isn’t going away any time soon.

“What we really care about is seeing change occur,” said O2 Utah Policy Director Eliza Cowie, whose organization helped craft Stoddard’s bill. “We know that the air quality issue will be an ongoing issue. It's not just something that. We can, you know, flip a switch and say, ’oh, it's done. We did it.’ But what we really think is possible is we can see little wins within this broader piece of legislation.”

For Stoddard, appealing to legislators’ economic sensitivities could be a deciding factor in passing future legislation.

I think if we really commit to working on our air and water issues, it will be a huge economic driver, [a] huge quality of life driver. And really, it's not this leftist environmental push.”

Stoddard said his only non-negotiable this session is doing nothing.

Updated: February 8, 2023 at 5:48 PM MST
The bipartisan clean-air caucus held a news conference on Feb. 8 to announce new bills and initiatives aimed at the states air quality.
Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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