SALT LAKE CITY — Calling it a red-letter day for air quality, Gov. Gary Herbert ushered in an announcement Tuesday by Chevron that it will transform its Salt Lake City refinery operations to move to cleaner burning fuel by the end of 2019.
"This warrants more fanfare," Herbert said at the ceremonial signing of SB197 that passed in the last legislative session.
The law provides tax incentives for refineries by not taxing the "inputs" that go into refining crude oil into fuel and was held up as the "carrot" to help refineries make the transition.
"We live here and we work here and we want to have the best air quality possible," said Mitra Kashanchi, refinery manager for Chevron Salt Lake.
Under federal rules for cleaner fuel standards — which mandate a reduction to 10 parts per million sulfur content — oil companies with multiple refineries could use a provision in the rule to average out their reductions companywide.
What that means for Utah is that big players like Chevron and Tesoro do not necessarily have to manufacture the cleaner fuel for in-state consumers — something Herbert and lawmakers chafed against.
"I applaud the governor and his staff for being tenacious," said HEAL Utah executive director Matt Pacenza. The head of the clean air advocacy organization said it was doubtful the refineries would have made the move on their own in Utah without political pressure and legislation providing financial incentives.
"The governor has been pushing and encouraging this for years," Pacenza said.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, sponsored the measure in the Senate and said lawmakers became convinced that a move toward Tier 3 fuel was critical for the state.
"There is probably nothing more significant that we can do for air quality," he said.
An EPA analysis backed by research done by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality shows the new standards for low-sulfur fuel and cleaner burning cars has no more dramatic impact in the country than in Utah.
The Wasatch Front, with its notorious temperature inversions that trap harmful particulate pollution in the valleys, gets about 48 percent of those emissions from tailpipes.
When conversion to Tier 3 fuel and Tier 3 vehicle standards are in full swing and the aging fleet of cars are retired, air quality regulators believe about 70 percent of those vehicle emissions will be eliminated.
Such a dent in emissions is the equivalent of removing four out of every five cars off the roadways.
"I applaud what the Legislature has done and I applaud what the refineries have done," Herbert said.
Afterward, the governor said he believed Chevron — which refines 53,000 barrels of crude oil a day into gasoline, jet fuel and diesel — will set an example for other Utah refineries to follow.
He did note that Tesoro has already said it would move to Tier 3 fuels.
"If they want to compete," Herbert said, all refineries will transform to the cleaner burning fuel because of market pressure.
Herbert said he believes Utah residents want cleaner air to the point that they will shop their conscience by picking a fuel brand with the low-sulfur content, even if it costs a few cents more per gallon.
"Better days are ahead, and cleaner days are ahead," he said.