What's the deal with Utah's air quality?

A 2013 survey found that 78 percent of Utahns think our air is worse today than it was 20 years ago. While we certainly do seem to have a lot more bad air days lately, the number of official red air days isn’t because we have worse air, it’s because the government changed its definition of bad air. In 2009 the EPA became much stricter on how much pollution it says is too much. Consequently, we have more red air days even as actual pollution levels are falling. That’s right, Utah’s air quality has drastically improved over the last couple decades. It just doesn’t seem like it because of changing regulations and aggressive public awareness campaigns.

So why do we care what the EPA’s changing regulations say? First, because pollution is harmful and public awareness of its levels and its sources is a good thing. Second, and this may explain the recent rush of government and business proclamations about air quality, if Utah continues to run afoul of federal regulations then we face the prospect of losing all federal transportation funding. There will be no federal money for new freeways or light rail trains, or any other new transportation project we currently rely upon the federal government to fund.

But regardless of funding or artificially inflated red air days, there are real health risks associated with poor air quality. There are numerous studies linking certain particulates in the air to a multitude of breathing and other health problems. So as responsible citizens it behooves us to identify these pollutants and reduce them where possible. However as in most things, identifying problems is fairly simple, while the policy prescriptions are much less so.

First, what’s causing the pollution? Again, surveys show that what many of us believe to be the culprit has less of an impact than we think. When we see pollution we often envision big industry with their huge smokestacks. While the Wasatch Front does have some industry (Kennecott Utah Copper mine, refineries, etc.), these sources only make up about 10 percent of the air pollution.

So who is the culprit? You and I and the cars we drive, with a little bit of home heating thrown in for good measure. Almost 60 percent of our air pollution comes from cars and trucks, or what’s called “mobile sources.” Another big polluter is wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. Apparently, romantic fires, while awesome, are extremely dirty polluters.

Which of course brings up the question, if cars are the main polluters, and there are more cars on the road now than there were 20 years ago, how can total pollution be dropping? First, because industry has made huge improvements. Geneva Steel shut down, for one thing. But industry as a whole has reduced emissions 80 percent, at a cost of $500 million. Second, although there may be more cars on the road today, what’s emitted from their tailpipes is much cleaner. Our cars have become much more fuel-efficient, and our gasoline is much cleaner-burning.

It would follow then, that an easy answer to further decrease pollution is to simply do more of what we’ve been doing – impose more regulation on industry and auto manufacturers. Some have even suggested moving the refineries. However, the costs, and especially the regulatory environment for refineries are so prohibitive that no new refinery has been built in the U.S. in almost four decades. Moving the refineries out of the inversion bowl along the Wasatch Front isn’t a feasible or likely solution, particularly given that industry only amounts to 10 percent of the problem.

At 60 percent, automobile emissions are by far the biggest contributor to our pollution, so perhaps we should start our reduction efforts there. The two main ways to reduce vehicle pollution are to drive fewer miles, or make cleaner the miles we do drive. As noted earlier, our cars have become much cleaner emitters over the last few decades. The federal government has mandated auto manufacturers meet fuel efficiency standards, so we can now drive farther without burning as much gas. At the same time they’ve had two major regulations to gasoline itself, the first one, called Tier 1 fuel, taking effect in 1997 and the second one, Tier 2 fuel, effective in 2009. Over that time period, though the number of miles we drive has remained steady, the actual pollution levels produced by those miles has fallen, and in fact will continue to fall as more and more older, dirtier vehicles are replaced with these newer, emissions-compliant versions.

One popular proposal for fixing our pollution problem is to impose even more stringent regulations. The federal government has proposed implementing what’s called Tier 3 fuels beginning in 2017 and phasing it in over the following decade. Some in Utah are lobbying for us to do it ourselves, and do it immediately. However, it’s important to note that while 85 percent of Utah vehicles meet at least the Tier 1 standard, a full 50 percent of our mobile source pollution comes from the 15 percent that do not. So instead of imposing another round of regulations, which of course also imposes price increases to cars and gasoline, isn’t it more prudent to focus on those 15 percent? In fact, is simple patience the best course of action? Do we need new, costly regulations when attrition alone will take care of a third of the problem?

Another popular proposal for reducing mobile source pollution is to promote public transit. The thinking goes that even if our cars are cleaner, our population continues to grow, and more people driving cars means more pollution. So in an effort to take cars off the road, for some time now the state of Utah has spent a lot of money on public transportation methods.

Click here to read the rest of this article and see references at Utah Citizen Network.