GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has asked Republican legislative leaders to prohibit wood burning in home stoves and fireplaces from early December to March in counties that are often clogged with bad air in Utah inversions.
But the governor’s ideas on wood burning and what’s called “Tier 3” gasoline-burning vehicles is not being well met by some GOP legislators.
One veteran GOP senator, in an aside to UtahPolicy, said Thursday: “There are a lot of cabins in the woods that burn wood. There are a lot of guns in those cabins. The governor better come armed to take out their wood stoves.”
In talks with leading state legislators, Herbert has said this is the best way to basically eliminate 5 percent of the dirty air particulates, especially along the Wasatch Front and in Cache and Duchesne counties.
Clean air is a political touchstone this Legislature, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers starting the Clean Air Caucus and Herbert setting up last year a special clean air group inside the Department of Environmental Quality.
Unfortunately for legislators, their general session runs from late January through mid-March, some of the worst air pollution months in the state.
And so there is political pressure about cleaning up the air right when lawmakers are in the Capitol, and looking out over the gunk in the Salt Lake Valley.
There are around 200 homes in Utah whose only heating source is a wood burning stove or fireplace. (These don’t count small cabins not occupied year around.)
Herbert told reporters Thursday that the state could set up a grant program that would give each of those homeowners $3,000 to bring in natural gas or propane as a heating source besides wood.
“We all want clean air; this is not a hard sell to anyone,” Herbert said in a half-hour press briefing Thursday afternoon.
But outlawing wood burning in fireplaces and stoves for nearly three months in the wintertime may be going a bit far.
Thursday Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said something should be done about wood burning, because it is an easy way to reduce air pollution by at least 5 percent.
“That is significant.”
But we know when an inversion is coming, said Niederhauser. And it makes sense to stop wood burning for a few days before the inversion hits and during the inversion itself.
“But prohibiting (wood burning) all through the winter – I’m not sure that’s the right policy,” said the president.
Most days, even in the winter, there is a lot of air movement along the Wasatch Front, Niederhauser added.
“And we don’t have inversions on those days.”
Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, told UtahPolicy the Uintah Basin can have terrible air quality days. But the science is still being worked on out there to see what is causing the bad air days.
The politicians agree that upwards of 60 percent of the bad air along the Wasatch Front is caused by vehicle emissions. And that problem is not easily solved.
One Senate source said that when Herbert met with leaders on Thursday morning, he told them that successfully restricting home wood burning – and cutting bad air by 5 percent – would give more time for industry and business to better control their emissions.
Industry only accounts for around 11 percent of the air pollution in Salt Lake and Davis counties.
And some of the fixes for those sources will be costly – and it may take several years to work on those solutions.
But banning wood burning in home fireplaces and stoves is an immediate fix – or at least a quicker one than industry refitting and trying to get people out of their cars, on to mass transit, and importing cleaner-burning gasoline and cars and trucks from Tier 3 states, like California.
Many of the Utah GOP legislators almost have a physical reaction when anyone suggests Utah do something like California does.
And having your neighbors turn you in if you decide to burn wood in your fireplace during the cold winter months, and you being fined for it, could sound a bit like Big Brother government to some conservative lawmakers.
“It’s an easy solution to stop burning wood,” Herbert told the reporters.
Rather than saying you can’t burn wood on an upcoming Tuesday, or on a red air quality day, why not just ban wood burning for two-and-a-half months, said the governor.
“If we did that we’d have 5 percent reduction; it’s easy and not very expensive.”