SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers joined Gov. Gary Herbert on a CNG-fueled school bus parked outside the Capitol on Monday in support of his call for a transition to clean fuel vehicles to improve air quality in the state.
"All of us know air quality is an issue, and it's been front and center this winter," Herbert said. "We need to find ways to improve our air quality. … It impacts our health, it impacts our economy, (and) it impacts our quality of life."
The governor called on state and local governments, schools, public transit agencies, business and industry to covert their fleets to vehicles that use compressed natural gas, calling it "the fuel of the future."
"It's cleaner burning fuel, it gives better performance and it's less expensive," Herbert said. "Natural gas will help us bridge that transition from carbon-based fuels to others. Who knows what the possibilities will be down the road as we try to get cleaner fuels?"
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is sponsoring SB275 to establish a commission to facilitate the transition to natural gas in Utah. The committee will also focus on building facilities and infrastructure that help maintain natural gas vehicles, he said.
"We've been in the ages when we had coal stoves … in homes, and we went through a transition to more modern heating," Adams said. "We're in the same transition with vehicles."
In addition to reducing emissions, he said the bill would diminish dependence on foreign oil and strengthen the economy.
Joining the "natural gas bandwagon" is feasible, said Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, the bill's House sponsor.
"Years ago, the natural gas vehicles had a few problems," Draxler said. "But just like every technology in our society, natural gas has come a long way, and our vehicles — both cars, trucks and heavy equipment — can operate very efficiently on it right now.”
House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said SB275 goes well beyond a so-called "message" bill and may be a tough sell for some. The bill allows gas companies to recover their investment in natural gas fuel stations from ratepayers, up to $5 million annually.
"It's going to be some heavy lifting," Hughes said.
House GOP leaders said the bill represents a long-term approach to getting at the bulk of the state's pollution problem.
"When you see 60 percent of the problem we have is from tailpipes, if you really want to address this issue, you have to address vehicles," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Odgen, who had been critical of Democratic proposals on air quality as short-term solutions, said the legislation discussed Monday is the GOP alternative he had promised.
"It's a real, meaningful thing," Dee said of Adams' bill.
Herbert also asked for additional ideas to improve Utah's air quality.
"The Legislature is open to any reasonable and rational idea," Herbert said. "In fact, we're probably open to those that are unreasonable and irrational. Let's put them on the table, let's talk about them, (and) let's see what makes sense."
Later Monday, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee failed to pass a bill that would have given a tax credit to Utahns who purchase a UTA bus pass.
The sponsor of HB138, Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said the bill was an attempt to get more drivers to use public transportation to help improve air quality. But Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Orem, said there was no evidence the bill would do anything more than reward current public transportation users.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, who joined the Democrats on the committee in voting for passing the bill to the full House, said people do respond to incentives and air quality is the one area "that demands a degree of government activism."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche