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In our opinion: Clearing the air in Utah won't be easy or cheap

Published: Friday, June 14 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Participants of a clean air rally head into the Utah State Capitol to deliver 7,330 signatures on a clean air petition to the governor in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb.6, 2013. The Environmental Protection Agency says Salt Lake City currently has the worst air quality in the country.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Improving the quality of Utah's air during winter inversions and the summer ozone season won't come easy and it won't be cheap. Because the bulk of this problem comes from the tailpipes of millions of drivers across the state, the easiest and most cost-effective solutions will likely come from improvements in automobile emissions, and that's a step best taken sooner than later.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing new fuel and vehicle standards that would lead to significant reductions in harmful emissions, and state environmental regulators have, at this point, opted neither to endorse nor reject the proposal. The board of the state's Division of Air Quality is concerned about costs the new standards will impose on vehicle owners and gasoline refineries.

The board is justified to consider the price tag of new regulations, but it must also consider that dirty air comes with costs of its own, in the form of higher health care expenses and in lost economic benefits as employers choose to locate their businesses in places where the breathing is easier.

The EPA touts the new standards as the fastest and most effective way to reduce harmful automobile emissions, which are responsible for more than half of Utah's smog problem. The refinery industry opposes adopting the standards as currently proposed, arguing that costs will be significantly higher than what proponents have estimated.

While regulators say it would increase the cost of a gallon of gasoline by about a penny, the Utah Petroleum Association says it would be more like 8 or 9 cents a gallon. Refineries would face significant costs to retool facilities in order to reduce sulfur emissions, as the new standards mandate. But because the refineries located just north of downtown Salt Lake City are considered small operations, they would be given more time to phase in the changes.

The industry says because of that, any impact on Wasatch Front air quality won't be noticed for about a decade, but proponents say that's all the more reason to get started now. And proponents dispute how quickly benefits would come online — claiming immediate benefits in 2017 and more than 70 percent reductions in key pollutants by 2030.

The standards would require a two-thirds reduction in the sulfur content of gasoline and mandate larger catalytic converters, as well as heat pumps to avoid the "cold-starts" that spike vehicle emissions. These standards are already in effect in California, as well as in Europe, Japan and South Korea. California regulators say the standards have contributed to a significant improvement in air quality.

The California Air Pollution Control Officers Association recently reported that levels of fine particulate emissions in the Los Angeles area in 2012 were the lowest ever measured.

For the sake of Utah's physical well-being and the state's economic health, Utah should get onto this clean air trajectory. These new standards enjoy widespread support — auto manufacturers, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, representing 43 states and more than 100 metropolitan areas, have all backed the new standards as a strategy that will produce "effective and immediate" results.

We agree. We recognize others will want to engage in more discussion and analysis. We invite them to do so. We believe the facts will show the benefits of cleaner air in our valleys far outweigh the costs of adopting cleaner fuels and technology.

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