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Lawmakers mull Gov. Herbert's clean air recommendations

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 8:04 p.m. MDT

Air quality suffers as an inversion covers the Salt Lake valley  Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's recommendations that Utah embrace Tier 3 standards and impose greater restrictions on wood burning are causing a buzz at the Utah Legislature. Some lawmakers have expressed doubts. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Air quality suffers as an inversion covers the Salt Lake valley Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's recommendations that Utah embrace Tier 3 standards and impose greater restrictions on wood burning are causing a buzz at the Utah Legislature. Some lawmakers have expressed doubts. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Recommendations by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and his Clean Air Action Team to invoke tighter restrictions on wood burning and accelerate a move to cleaner cars and fuel are key policy shifts that will require a legislative stamp of approval.

That sentiment came Thursday as GOP leadership in both the House and Senate expressed some reservations about a wholesale embrace of Herbert's charge to take immediate action to clean up Utah's dirty air.

"We are trying to work with the governor's office to make certain that the initiatives he is putting forward we can actually do," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, "but the Legislature does has to have a proper role to be able to make those things happen."

In Herbert's State of the State address Wednesday night and in recommendations detailed by his Clean Air Action Team, the governor said those Utah areas out of compliance with federal clean air standards should have tougher restrictions on wood burning during the inversion season.

While it remains unclear how tough those restrictions would be or if wood burning would be eliminated during the entire inversion season, some lawmakers voiced concern over a blanket ban.

"I see the Legislature tackling the wood burning issue after a very thorough study of what is reasonable," said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, adding that an outright ban on wood burning from November to February might be extreme.

"That may be a little heavy-handed. We need to be a little careful and a little bit reasonable on how we move forward that recommendation," Okerlund said.

The momentum to tackle wood burning as a source of winter pollution is on the uptick, fueled by a push from clean air advocates and an analysis released this month by the Utah Foundation. The study concluded that residential incineration of wood may be a larger contributor to airshed pollutants than suspected — up to 10 percent of winter air pollution — and one hour of burning is equivalent to eight hours in the car.

Both Okerlund and Valentine cautioned that enacting restrictions before a temperature inversion hits could be as effective but less personally intrusive than an outright ban, and perhaps the state could take more proactive steps in that arena.

Some lawmakers also questioned how easy and how practical it would be for Utah to embrace Tier 3 vehicle and fuel standards ahead of the federal government.

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to move to the heightened standard in 2017 and phasing the new rules in over several years. Tier 3 would lower the sulfur content of gasoline from 30 parts per million to 10 parts per million and require cleaner-burning emission controls on all new vehicles.

Proponents that include Herbert and the Utah Air Quality Board say the new standards would reduce certain pollutants by as much as 80 percent and represent one of the single most effective steps the state could take to combat its air quality struggles. A nationwide move to Tier 3, according to the EPA, would be the equivalent of taking 33 million cars off the road and produce annual health benefits of $30 billion by 2030.

Refineries, however, say it would require $10 billion in upgrades, and 16 refineries nationwide would have to be overhauled — resulting in higher gas prices at the pump.

Herbert said he wants the state to make the transition to cleaner fuel as quickly as possible, but lawmakers wondered what the practical impact of that would be.

"Until the federal standard becomes the standard, we would become an island in terms of the kind of fuels that we burn here," Valentine said.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said refineries aren't prepared to make such a costly move that would put businesses at risk and hurt consumers.

"What that’ll do to the consumer for the gain we get out that, I think we have to be, in my mind, very, very careful of that."

Even if Utah were to accelerate the change to a lower sulfur fuel, it would still take a couple of years before that type of gasoline would be sold at the pump. Because Utah refineries are smaller producing refineries, the proposed federal standard would give them a longer time frame to comply.

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