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For Air Quality to Improve, Multiple Angles Must be Considered

Salt Lake City—Newsflash: the metropolitan areas of Utah do not have particularly good air quality. That piece of information, although perhaps a shock to those freshly visiting or moving to the state, is not a surprise to any Utahn. The question of what we can do to improve our air quality has long been on the minds of many of the state’s citizens, companies, and our legislature.

Even as solutions are presented, Utah has failed to reach EPA expectations—the 2015 due date for Utah to reach EPA’s 2006 “moderate” classification came and went with the state unable to squeak by. The state has an upcoming attainment demonstration date of December, 2019.

“It’s a short period of time to demonstrate attainment,” said Glade Sowards or the Utah Division of Air Quality, at a panel during the Governor’s energy summit on Thursday. He explained that the sources of emission and pollution for the Wasatch Front communities mainly come from three sources: area pollutants like gas stations, dry cleaners, residential and commercial buildings; mobile pollutants such as our cars, trucks and buses; and point pollutants, like refineries.

It’s the breakdown of that pie chart that surprises people: 39 percent of Wasatch Front pollution comes from area pollutants, 48 percent from mobile, and 13 percent from point pollutants.

When looking at the entire picture, it becomes clear that transportation solutions must be heavily considered when looking to solve Utah’s air quality problem. Lee Peacock, of the Utah Petroleum Association, said that the oil and gas industry has been trying to innovate and find solutions to become cleaner.

“Oil and natural gas are critical to our current way of life. We’re everywhere and in everything, from your tech to your clothing to your household items. We make life better. Like us or hate us, we are a part of life,” said Peacock. “Being such, we try to do the best we can to leave as light a footprint as we can in the world and provide these critical products that are so important to our modern, comfortable way of life.”

Peacock said that while oil and natural gas continue to be a major player in the Utah economy—as well as the primary source of the world’s energy—large-scale change will be incremental. Fuel standards have changed in three generations of federal and fuel standards to meet vehicle emission standards. The tier 1 generation of fuel happened in 1991, and then tier 2 was adopted in 1999—which lead to an 82 percent reduction of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emitted by fuel. The tier 3 generation of fuel standards was adopted in 2014, and created another 81 percent reduction in the VOC and NOx emission levels. Tier 3, said Peacock, could create a 70 percent reduction in direct particle emissions per vehicle basis.

The tricky thing is, Utah doesn’t have to meet those tier 3 fuel standards until 2020, especially because Utah’s refineries are comparatively smaller than others across the country, allowing for them to request further time to comply with standards.

“The problem is that, to reduce the sulfur, it’s a capital-intensive process. There has to be construction, manpower, expertise, and that’s spread pretty thin across the country because every refinery around the country is doing this. We could start today and it would still take us a lot of time,” said Peacock. “[But] even without the regulation, the sulfur level in our gas is coming down—so we’re getting closer and closer to that 10 parts per million number as time goes on. We recognize it’s an issue. But it is what it is. There’s reality to this. It’s a piece of the puzzle. But tier 3 isn’t going to solve all our air quality [issues]; it won’t make inversion go away. But it’ll lessen the impact.”

Another solution for air quality management is, of course, electric cars.

“The route towards zero emissions will ultimately be in electrification of vehicles. The cost of electricity versus gas is also substantially lower,” said Will Toor of Southwest Energy Efficiency.

And Utah has been an early adopter of electric vehicles. Toor said that in electric vehicle purchase growth, Utah tops the country. But still, the market share in the state is hovering under a single percent—and the legislature recently removed the $1,500 tax credit for electric vehicle adopters. A similar change in Georgia led to the purchase of electric vehicles plummeting nearly 80 percent, he said.

To strengthen the commitment to buying electric vehicles, key local policies and programs need to be put in place, such as discounted group purchase programs, making sure new buildings have EV-charging stations. Utility investment in electric vehicles is also very important, said Toor. Lastly, the infrastructure needs to be built, extended and strengthened throughout the state so that electric vehicle owners need not fear being stranded without a charger. In the future, Dr. Regan Zane of Utah State University’s SELECT Center says he sees infrastructure not only making sure electric vehicles have places to charge on the interstate, but even electric roads charging our vehicles as we drive.

“One, we can generate electricity on board. We can do this with fossil fuels or hydrogen. Or we can deliver the electricity as you go, like a trolley or train,” said Zane. “The bottom line is, we see a future where vehicles are not only self-driving but self-charging as well.”