My view: An engaged Legislature for clean air

By Johnathan Johnson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, April 15 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Let’s take a look at what the Utah state Legislature did during the 2014 legislative session to improve air quality and, importantly, what it still needs to do. This year, the Utah state Legislature took several steps to advance clean air.

Scott G Winteton, Deseret News

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Spring has sprung in Utah. We are again enjoying blue skies and clean air. The dark and mucky days of inversion are temporarily behind us for another season.

Let’s take a look at what the Utah state Legislature did during the 2014 legislative session to improve air quality and, importantly, what it still needs to do.

This year, the Utah state Legislature took several steps to advance clean air in our valleys — more than in previous years. For that, I heartily commend it.

Much of the progress stemmed from two groups. First, the bipartisan House Clean Air Caucus began work before the 2014 session to identify ways to improve air quality and keep clean air a legislative priority. Second, over the last two years the Legislative Economic Task Force focused on air quality’s impact on Utah’s economy.

So just what did the state Legislature accomplish to improve air quality in the 2014 legislative session?

It passed several bills and appropriated more than $4.6 million in new funding to address our air quality challenges. Specifically, the Legislature:

• Enacted a law requiring 50 percent of the state’s passenger fleet to be cleaner burning vehicles by 2018.

• Extended a tax credit for CNG vehicles to now include electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and other cleaner-burning vehicles.

• Allocated money for ongoing public awareness efforts, scientific research, assistance for voluntary conversions of sole source wood burning heaters in homes, and assistance to small businesses in reducing emissions.

Despite this progress, the Legislature needs to do more to prepare for an ever-growing Utah population. Because the majority of polluting emissions come from vehicles on the road, the Legislature still needs to support early adoption of Tier 3 fuels and vehicles and funding for more mass transit. Utah needs cleaner-burning cars and a more robust transit system. And we need them sooner, rather than later.

Given Utah’s unique geography and small refineries, the Legislature should continue to consider whether to allow Utah’s Air Quality Board and Division of Air Quality to set air quality standards more stringent than federal standards. The House of Representatives passed such a bill in 2014 (HB121), only to die in the Senate. Maybe it will happen next year.

Each of us has an important role in improving air quality in Utah: businesses, individuals and government. No one should expect, or even want, the Legislature to be the sole source of the fix to our air quality problems. However, because our polluted air results from what economists call “a tragedy of the commons” in which individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each person’s self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting some common resource (in this case, clean air), government does have a role in crafting solutions.

This year, the Legislature took significant steps toward being part of the solution. For that it deserves our thanks. Meaningful change often takes time. Next year, the Legislature should take more steps to ensure cleaner air for Utah.

Jonathan Johnson is executive vice chairman of Overstock.com, a Utah-based online retailer, and chairman of the Salt Lake Chamber Clean Air Task Force.

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