With regard to economic success and clean air, I think we can have it all. I’m not a Utah native, but my great-grandma was, and I’m pretty sure optimism and the urge to put up cans for the winter are both traits I got from her. We want an economic and regulatory environment in which businesses can thrive; we want to conserve our air, water and land for our own great-grandchildren. I don’t see those as contradictions, any more than asking for dinner and dessert. Think it through and save room.
Some readers might roll their eyes and turn the page, but stay with me on this for a minute. First, what really makes a place welcoming for business? A good market for a product, right? Skilled and loyal employees, reasonable operating expenses, speedy permits. Shareholders and bottom lines on balance sheets may clamor for cheap expenses and minimal regulatory burden, but running a business is more than quarterly returns.
Most business people will tell you that predictability is most important of all. Laws, regulations, taxes and fees should make sense and apply evenly and predictably. Safe, conscientious operations are better for workers for the same reason. Rules that make sense and apply evenly make for a respectful workplace. The Wild West, lawless and hardscrabble, was great for legend but lousy to live in. Companies need to plan for future growth by predicting future operating conditions. A respectful business environment isn’t laissez-faire, but one in which regulators and lawmakers are predictable and fair.
Second, what makes for effective conservation? In a pure sense, conservation is protecting a place or resource for everyone by letting it be used by no one. In a selfish sense, it’s keeping it aside except for what "I" would want it for. Maybe I’m a backpacker or skier, a fisherwoman or four-wheeler. In a practical sense, though, we need to acknowledge that public funds, tourism and recreation underwrite conservation, but it only comes to pass with good planning and careful compromise. We need water, air and open natural spaces for future generations’ inheritance, so they may also know the spiritual and physical health Utah offers now.
Let’s not squabble about whether a regulation is more stringent than mandated, or whether a minimum federal standard is protective enough. Let’s definitely not squabble about whether environmentalists are elitists or industry despoils the earth. Let’s do discuss whether a rule is effective and implementable. Let’s do discuss whether an activity promotes economic growth, conservation efforts or both.
Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality, hardworking but overextended, is staffed by people willing to do so, and new oil and gas permitting rules passed by the Air Quality Board on Jan. 3 put that on fine display. Permit-by-rule, as the new rules are collectively called, took two years of stakeholder meetings. PBR represents a streamlined method to issue permits so that operators will be able to better plan time and requirements for new sites.
PBR also provides a mechanism to better account for active oil and gas wells in the Uinta Basin so we can better understand the pollution load. I consider it a small but important step.
The crucial next step builds directly: what other pollution sources need to be accounted for? Active wells in the basin likely still won’t fully account for air pollution there, and the Wasatch Front and back are still confounded by the variety of pollution made by our teeming population.
Measures to limit pollution need to make sense, and sense can only be made with good information. Thankfully, the governor has proposed to beef up DAQ’s staff and research budget for next year. With dedicated staff who love their state, with good information and with careful compromise, Utah can make room for all.
Debbie Sigman, Ph.D., is the executive director of Breathe Utah.