A Hazy Outlook: Tackling Utah’s air quality from multiple angles

Be honest. Have there been days when you’ve wanted to invest in a gas mask when you walk outside? Days where the outlines of the mountains fade into a blur, and the fog is a tinged a murky brown?

That’s the reality of the inversion days in our state’s metropolitan areas. And while inversion is a meteorological phenomenon, it doesn’t change the fact that on the days that phenomenon occurs—on average 18 days a year—we’re all stuck breathing a dusty soup of pollutants.

The issue is top of mind for the citizens affected by winter inversion and our poor summer air days, says Bryce Bird, Air Quality Division director at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Bird says that in a recent survey, respondents replied “air quality was one of the highest concerns on [their] mind—and the one that people thought we were doing the least about.”

What is the answer to Utah’s air quality problem? Is it that the state’s growth is outpacing our state’s efforts to lower pollution? That technology hasn’t caught up with the problem? That laziness leads the population to shun habits that would lower emissions on our worst air quality days? Or that here, as with seemingly everything, money still talks? The answer is a complicated blend of all of these—and more.

How bad is bad?

We know the air quality in Utah can be quite bad. In fact, it’s bad enough the American Lung Association ranked Salt Lake City as having the sixth-worst air quality in the nation, with a whopping F-grade in both ozone and particle pollution. Utah has failed to reach EPA’s 2006 guidelines, and was unable to reach the EPA’s “moderate” classification by its 2015 due date—now, the Beehive state will try again to demonstrate attainment by 2019.

A study from the New England Journal of Medicine, released in July 2017, alarmed Utah physicians, showing that high levels of particulate pollution and ozone are strongly associated with stillbirths and increased rates of mortality.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) Board President Dr. Brian Moench stated in a press release: “UPHE has always advocated that there is no safe level of air pollution and EPA standards are inadequate. We have estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 people Utah die annually because of our air pollution. These studies firmly establish the scientific validity of those estimations.”

Pinpointing sources

Figures from Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2017 Energy Summit showed that emissions and pollution sources in the Wasatch Front came mainly from three sources: area pollutants, like gas stations, dry cleaners, and residential or commercial buildings; mobile pollutants such as cars, trucks and buses; and point pollutants, such as refineries. It’s the breakdown of that pie chart that might surprise people: 39 percent of Wasatch Front pollution comes from area pollutants, 48 percent from mobile, and 13 percent from point pollutants.

To truly solve the air quality problem, the best solution is to attack all the sources, rather than simply focus on one. After all, although nearly half of the pollutants in our air come from the cars we drive, how many people do you know that have volunteered to simply toss out their keys and start walking everywhere? It’s a multi-pronged problem, and needs a multi-pronged solution.

RefineriesRefining the refineries

The oil and gas industry isn’t going anywhere, despite the horrible PR that’s rained down on it for years.

“Petroleum products are really everywhere in our lives,” says Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association. “When you stop and look at the building blocks of everything we use in our lives, petrochemicals, which come from the oil and gas industry, are in virtually everything we use every day. You think about plastics or simple household items like cosmetics, sports equipment or rubber for tires—oil and gas is a huge part of all of that.”

Because the industry is vital to virtually everything people use, Peacock says the idea that oil and gas companies are resistant to alternative fuels for our transportation systems is overblown. He says the industry has put lots of research and development dollars into alternatives, but that oil and gas is always going to be necessary. “As an industry, we’re working hard to deliver those resources we all need in as an environmentally responsible way as we all can,” he says.

Peacock also says the long-touted idea that simply “turning off” the refineries on bad air days is not just incorrect—it’s irresponsible. Shutting down and firing up a refinery creates more pollution than simply allowing it to run continuously, thereby completely defeating the purpose, he says. It’s better to let the refineries run—but have them create cleaner fuel.

The EPA’s fuel standards have long regulated the amount of sulfur in fuel. Currently, companies have to demonstrate attainment with the EPA’s third tier of sulfur fuel standards—which, Peacock says, is good for everyone. “Sulfur actually inhibits your car’s emission control system to work optimally,” he says. “The less sulfur in gas, the lower the emissions for vehicles.”

However, oil and gas companies only have to demonstrate attainment across all of their refineries, not each one on an individual basis. Utah’s refineries are considered small refineries, and it’s less cost-effective for a large company to fit the smaller refineries than the larger ones with the equipment and technology necessary for Tier 3 attainment. Furthermore, smaller refineries have a longer window to demonstrate attainment.

“[The EPA] recognizes that this is a fairly complicated and expensive rule to implement, especially for small refineries. So they built into the rule provisions for small refineries… It gives a little more time for the small refiners to comply with the rule, versus larger refiners from around the country,” says Peacock. “All five of your refineries here in Utah qualify under EPA’s small refiner exemption.”

Still, says Peacock, one of Utah’s refineries, Silver Eagle—incidentally, the smallest of the five—is already making fuel cleaner than Tier 3 standards and will not have to do anything further.

In an op-ed published last autumn in The Salt Lake Tribune, Herbert vowed to do what he could to make refineries produce Tier 3 fuel, and in the final week of the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers voted to provide a $1.8 million tax break to incentivize refineries to produce the cleaner gasoline. Since then, Chevron committed to its refinery in Utah producing Tier 3 gasoline by the end of 2019. Tesoro, owner of the state’s largest refinery, has also said it will cut the amount of sulfur in its gasoline by two-thirds over the next three to four years.  The process, Tesoro reports, will cost its refinery around $100 million.

“It’s hard for refiners to pass on those costs, because the biggest market is the transportation fuels market, which is exceptionally competitive,” explains Peacock. “It’s such a competitive marketplace and everything depends on supply and demand. It’s hard for them to always recoup those costs from environmental and benefit projects.”

power plantInnovating combustion

The death of coal has also long been greatly exaggerated. And while we’ve all heard the term “clean coal” for a while now, what does—or would—that really entail?

Andrew Fry, associate professor of chemical engineering at Brigham Young University, has long been “drawn to power systems and combustion systems and making them better.” He’s worked on emission issues related to both sulfur and nitrogen oxides related to coal-fire power generation. Clean coal would be coal that doesn’t pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—and Fry says that, regardless of political argument, greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and their effect on our atmosphere have significantly changed the outlook of what coal-fire power generation should look like.

“We are talking about technologies that are essentially pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere … and then saying that we have to limit the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere,” he says. “The majority of coal is carbon and that becomes CO2. It’s mixed with nitrogen that comes in with the air, and it’s difficult to remove.”

To keep that carbon dioxide from streaming into the air, Fry says coal can be burned with pure oxygen instead. “There’s a few things that happen that are favorable when we do this. We can boost the efficiency of the system, and what’s emitted is pure CO2. And it’s pure CO2. We don’t have to separate it [from nitrogen],” he says. “Geologists say we can take that pure CO2, compress it until it becomes into a supercritical fluid, like a liquid, and we can inject it into geologic structures underground. So we’re talking about a zero-emission coal.”

While some believe that zero-emission coal is far-fetched, Fry says the technology not only exists, but has been demonstrated in Germany and Australia in large scales. China, too, is showing great interest in its development. A program in the United States was meant to build a plant around the technology, but the government decided not to pursue that pathway.

“The drawback is that we don’t ever get anything for free,” continues Fry. “There’s no driver right now on the books that says that power companies have to be zero emission. So they’ll do what makes best economic sense for their company.”

And what makes the best economic sense for the company is probably building natural gas combined cycle units, says Fry. Natural gas’s extremely low prices, although historically volatile, have driven many companies to look toward that gas instead of coal, touting it as cleaner and better, instead of investing in costly new installations for zero-emission coal.

“The tech is available, but the bulky economic and regulatory drivers aren’t in place to make that flourish,” he says.  Instead, the future lies in finding ways to make the clean coal technology more economically favorable and efficient.

“What I’m working on is a solution. When you’re going to invest money, people tell you, you should have a broad portfolio because that’s safe. I believe that’s true in the way that we create energy, too,” he says. “I’m fully supportive of nuclear.  I’m fully supportive of renewables, even though they have limitations. And advanced technologies for coal should be developed and available. I think it’ll be needed in the future.”

Highway trafficAn electrifying option

Don’t forget: nearly 48 percent of Utah’s pollution comes from motor vehicles. That 48 percent is comprised of individual decisions to get into a car and drive, every single day.

“First, it’s important to emphasize that air quality does have a significant dependence on transportation,” says Dr. Regan Zane, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Utah State University, as well as director for the Center for Sustainable Electrified Transportation (SELECT). “Then, looking at that, what are the different options for us in reducing that particulate matter from transportation and point sources and localized emission? The idea of transportation electrification would be significant improvement—the possibility of zero tailpipe emissions.”

Electric vehicles are the darlings of many who want to see fewer pollutants in our atmosphere. The idea of nearly 50 percent reduction in pollution, simply by switching cars, is bewitching. But there are drawbacks: the need to produce more electricity to power electric cars, for instance.

Still, for Zane, that caveat is worth it. Power plants can’t get permits in the primary airshed of a city, which would still mean we’re all breathing cleaner air (and if we could get some of that zero-emission coal …)

Some of the other roadblocks to a widespread embrace of electric vehicles (which currently make up a staggering 1 percent of the market share in Utah) are the lack of infrastructure and the cost of batteries. Current battery cost, for instance, makes electric vehicle adoption in large vehicles like freight trucks cost-prohibitive. Even for basic or small-sized sedans, Zane says the price of electric cars and their maintenance and charging isn’t quite “mass market”—instead, he calls it “the realm of almost-reality.”

Zane says the general infrastructure for electric vehicles doesn’t exist yet, but creating that infrastructure would incentivize the average person to invest in buying an electric car. If you could charge your car at work or at home, that would certainly help. But something that might help even more is if you could charge your car as you drive, something like the existing hybrid system but with a little extra oomph.

That’s the technology Zane is working on: embedding wireless power-transfer coils down inside the roadway. It would look like any other standard road, only any electric vehicle driving on it would have a receiving coil that would be configured for operation on that road—and as the car drove over the electrified segments, it would receive a charge. The next coil would further that charge, and the next, and the next. The road’s electricity would come from a roadside utility connection perhaps every fourth of a mile or so. And your car would be continuously charged.

Currently, this technology is in pilot studies. Zane says, eventually, the entire interstate system could be so charged, allowing your electric car to drive long distances and allowing freight trucks the capability to go all-electric. He talks about the cost in a way he calls “back of the envelope calculations,” which he says are optimistic. Electrifying a road would be something like $2.5-3 million per mile, but that’s a drop in the ocean of current national transportation costs.

He explains it this way: Let’s say you’re a corporation that owns the whole of the United States, with all its vehicles. “You look at it, we’re in the trillion-dollar range overall for transportation annual spend in the U.S. A significant portion of that is the fuel cost,” he says. “Let’s say electrifying the roadways is enough to convince everyone to buy electric cars. The cost of electrifying the interstate highways (for 100,000 miles and we consider $3 million per mile), that’s about $300 billion. If we go back to understanding that we’re burning close to a trillion dollars, but almost $500 billion in fuel per year, as this entity that owns the U.S., this system would pay for itself in a heartbeat.”

Of course, there’s no way to do this project overnight, and it’s difficult to convince everyone on our roadways to go electric—which, in turn, makes it difficult to convince anyone that we need to electrify our roadways. But Zane is optimistic that the pilot program of electrified roadways, which is being done in conjunction with Colorado’s Department of Transportation, will start convincing people to convert to electric cars.

“I think that could really be done. But first we need to further develop and demonstrate it on a public roadway,” he says. “It should be traded off with other options. We’re at the cusp of needing a major infrastructure upgrade in the U.S., anyway.”

Planning for the future

It doesn’t sit well with the Division of Air Quality’s Bryce Bird that so many people believe nothing is being done regarding the air quality in Utah. He says his department is constantly going through processes, doing cost-benefit analyses on whatever is controllable, and trying to tackle the problem.

“We go through the cost in dollars per ton of emissions reduced. Once we have that cost-benefit currency, the dollars per ton, we can compare strategies and determine which ones to put into place depending on the cost-benefit,” Bird says. This past June, the department’s board opened for public comment 12 changes to paints and solvents to limit the amount of emissions for those.

Furthermore, he says that our per-capita emissions are going down, and that from 2002-2014, the Salt Lake valley had a 46 percent reduction in per-capita emissions. But with Utah’s current and projected population growth, that number has to continue falling.

“You can’t build any further up the mountain or into the lake. All the new growth will occur in the same areas where we have air pollution challenges now,” he says. “But we’ve been monitoring since the late ‘50s. Each decade, air quality has improved in the Salt Lake valley, despite our growth.”

And while air quality is a real and pressing problem in the state, Bird says there’s no reason to be unnecessarily gloomy about the future.

“Public perception is out there and the perception is that it’s worse than it is. People focus on those bad air quality days and forget about all the good ones,” says Bird. “Companies said the No. 1 reason people leave the state, and a big detractor, is the air quality situation. [We] have to focus on the fact that we have some challenges and help people to understand we’re not that different from other metro areas of our size, and that we’re putting plans in place to address it. It will improve in the future. It is a challenge for us, but that is something that we are trying to address.”


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