SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert announced a clean air initiative Tuesday that some advocates worry lacks teeth to aggressively improve Utah's poor air quality.
Against a backdrop of energy-efficient diesel trucks, an electric car and a retrofitted school bus, Herbert spoke about the Utah Clean Air Partnership, or U-CAIR, at a Questar compressed natural gas fueling station. The initiative is designed to encourage residents and industries to do their part to improve air quality without "the heavy hand of government."
"All of us can do something to improve Utah's air quality," Herbert said.
This year, the American Lung Association named the Provo-Salt Lake City-Ogden area the fifth worst offender in the country for short-term particle pollution. Herbert noted the state's air quality remains a problem despite improvement over the past two decades.
Although he spoke optimistically about how the people of Utah would respond to the initiative, Herbert offered only generalities on what the initiative would accomplish.
"I had hoped to have a few more details," said Karen Hevel-Mingo, executive director of the nonprofit Breathe Utah.
She was encouraged, however, that the governor had made the issue a priority.
"Air quality is a tough thing," she said. "It's a complex, complicated issue. It's not coming from one source."
Herbert said the initiative, which he briefly mentioned in his State of the State address last week, would be a voluntary effort that relied on education and partnership rather than regulation. He pointed to the results of the Slow the Flow water conservation campaign that has led to a more than 15 percent decrease in water usage since 2000 as proof a similar public awareness campaign would work.
The U-CAIR website currently asks people to make a "clean air pledge" and lists 50 things people can do to improve air quality like walking instead of driving, keeping all solvents and paints in airtight containers and using a push mower.
While an effective public awareness campaign could encourage individuals and families to do their part to improve air quality, Dr. Brian Moench, president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said it's unrealistic to expect industries to follow suit.
"I don't know how you voluntarily ask industry to cooperate and reduce their emissions when right now they are applying to increase them," he said last week upon hearing about the initiative. "The IRS does not make paying our taxes voluntary for good reason."
Moench pointed to the recent success by Kennecott to get a permit from air quality regulators to expand operations through its Cornerstone Project and recent announcements by a pair of refineries that expansions are anticipated as evidence industries are seeking to increase emissions.
Herbert hinted at the possibility of incentives to convince individuals and industry to take action to improve air quality, but lacked specifics.
Jonathan Johnson, president of Overstock.com, said clean air is not only important for the environment and health, but for the economy, citing employees who left his Utah-based company because of the poor air quality. Johnson called Utah's air problem a "tragedy of the commons" as a resource shared by the public yet owned by no one isn't protected.
"When that tragedy occurs, it's right for government to step in," he said during the press conference.
But, as Herbert emphasized during the press conference, government's role would be limited, leaning more to suggesting than stepping in.
"I think it's better to do this voluntarily," Herbert said.