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There’s a story making the rounds on Utah’s Capitol Hill about a private jet full of corporate executives looking to possibly move their business to the the Beehive state.

 

According to accounts, the plane lands in Salt Lake City and the executives disembark ready to tour possible sites for relocation. As they head to the car, they see the thick inversion hanging over the Salt Lake Valley. They are so disgusted by what they see that they turn around, get back on the plane and leave.

That’s a good story, but did it happen?

Not exactly.

Michael Sullivan with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development says the plane full of executives headed to Salt Lake City were actually diverted to the Ogden airport because of poor visibility.

But did they forego a tour of sites in Salt Lake because of pollution?

“No,” says Sullivan unequivocally. “They toured the potential sites. They did not leave.”

The problem for Utah is the perception that there’s enough truth about poor air quality to make it sound like it actually happened.

The tale fits into a larger narrative taking shape on the Hill this session, that Utah is losing economic development dollars because of poor air quality. As we all know, perception is reality, and when a thick inversion is hanging over the valley, it’s easy to connect dots that aren’t necessarily there.

But, is that true? Is Utah’s pollution problem costing the state dollars?

Sullivan says there’s no evidence that is happening.

“Is Los Angeles losing dollars because of their poor air?” asks Sullivan. “Is Bejing? Is Chicago? We mostly lose businesses because we refuse to hand out big buckets of money to get them to relocate here.”

Sullivan says air quality is a constant concern for GOED, and they’ve even taken steps to head off making more of a problem.

“There have been some businesses looking to relocate to Utah that would need permits because of the amount of pollution they produce. There have been lots of examples where we told those firms that their presence wouldn’t be a good fit for the state.”

Sen. Stuart Adams knows the state has a problem, but he sees this as an opportunity.

“Air quality has to be #1 issue along with education. It isn’t as if we don’t have a problem, we think we do,” says Adams. “The only way to solve it is if we own it. The legislature is going to do what we can. We can Incentivise alternate fuels. That economic development everybody is concerned about will actually increase as we work to fix the problem.”

According to the Division of Air Quality, only about 10% of pollution comes from the state. About 60% comes from cars and the other 30% is due to the fact that people live in the valley - we heat our homes in the winter and cool them in the summer. That’s an uncomfortable truth that we need to come to terms with.

Another uncomfortable truth is there’s not much the legislature can do to fix the issue because Utahns love their cars. To make a meaningful change, we need to change our habits.

But, sooner or later the apocryphal story being told on the hill is going to become reality. Some executive for a big company is going to publicly say they won’t move to Utah because of pollution and air quality.

Make no mistake, that day is coming. And when it does the perception about Utah’s air quality will ossify into a hard reality.

And, at that point, we may have no choice but to make some difficult changes to our quality of life.