Hughes Has a ‘Big Idea’ to Improve Air Quality in Utah

House Speaker-elect Greg Hughes calls it one of his “big ideas.”

And while he says it with a smile, Hughes, R-Draper, is serious about this idea, even if he declines to talk about it in any great detail.

First, some deals have to be made.

And Hughes prides himself as a pretty good deal-maker – as seen in his liquor reform and other legislative initiatives that many dismissed as too hard politically when he first suggested them.

His new big idea, “Is a remnant of my time at UTA,” Hughes tells UtahPolicy.

“But it can make a real difference in the energy economy of our state, and help our air quality along the Wasatch Front.”

Big idea, indeed.

In a nut shell: The state provides money to local school districts and the Utah Transit Authority to convert old diesel-burning busses into cleaner burning compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Thousands of busses being converted over several years will spark the natural gas industry in the Unitah Basin, creating more jobs, more taxes paid.

In return, Utah’s natural gas producers will give money/materials towards the bus conversions, dropping down the cost to the government for per-bus conversion and installing natural gas storage and pumps.

It’s the ultimate public/private partnership, says Hughes.

And one that works for the betterment of many Utahns on those terrible air-inversion days of January and February, and July and August.

Two years ago the 2013 Legislature happened to meet during an extended air inversion in the Salt Lake Valley.

The 104 part-time lawmakers – most of whom come from Wasatch Front districts – were inundated with calls from unhappy constituents.

Why aren’t you doing something about this air?

What did we elect you for?

The reality is that around 60 percent of air pollutants come out of vehicle tailpipes. And there is almost nothing that legislators or GOP Gov. Gary Herbert can do in the short run to help our air quality – aside from getting cars off the roads.

Last general session, as Hughes remembers, we didn’t have those inversions during the January-February-March 45-day general session.

“I remember walking outside (of the Capitol) one afternoon in February, looking at the beautify blue sky and clear air and saying to myself, “My, we’ve sure done a great job on air quality this year.””

Now, state and local governments have started any number of volunteer air-quality programs, even gone so far as to outlaw wood-stove burning on certain bad air days.

But the real solution will come in time – as cars and trucks move to cleaner fuels, especially electricity.

Still, Hughes believes a few “big ideas,” if implemented, can make a difference sooner.

A start, he says, would have been Rep. Steve Handy’s HB41, introduced in the 2014 session.

It would have provided $20 million from the state’s surplus education monies last year to convert some school busses to CNG or another clean-energy fuel.

But lawmakers didn’t prioritize HB41 high enough to get funding, and after passing the House it failed on the Senate’s calendar the final week of the session.

HB41’s $20 million would not have converted all of the school busses in the state, but it was the right idea, Hughes told UtahPolicy.

Handy, R-Layton, said he has already pre-filed HB41 for the 2015 session and hopes for a better outcome.

“There are 2,500 diesel school busses” in Utah, said Handy. Of that number, around 1,000 are 15 years old or older and considered “dirty busses” because of their poor pollution-producing engines.

The state would pay half of each conversion, the school district the rest, “so it was really a $40 million program,” said Handy.

However, half of the $20 million state money would go toward school district CNG infrastructure updates, so in the first round of funding only about 170 busses would be converted to CNG.

“But with that infrastructure update, then the program of bus conversions could really take off,” said Handy.

Hughes wants to go bigger – and include UTA and perhaps other local transit authorities.

UTA spokesman Remi Barron tells UtahPolicy that UTA currently has 422 diesel busses, 32 hybrid-fuel busses and 24 CNG busses.

The key, says Hughes, is to get Utah’s natural gas producers to step up to the table and provide significant help, either in cash or in materials to convert the busses, especially UTA’s large fleet.

There are all kinds of positives in his idea, says Hughes, who will take over the speakership from retiring Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, the first of the year.

A few:

— The price of natural gas has been dropping, as fracking and other hi-tech recovery methods have come into play.

— The price of CNG is more stable than the price of diesel, and so it is easier for school and transit districts to calculate costs.

— And, of course, CNG is a cleaner burning fuel than diesel.

“But there are significant barriers to converting to CNG,” says Hughes, who was on the UTA board for eight years, the last four as chairman. (He will resign his UTA board post before the end of this year to take over the speakership.)

— CNG busses cost more to buy.

— And for a huge bus operation, like UTA, the owner must install a whole new fueling infrastructure – storage tanks, pumps and so forth.

“There are a number of ideas floating out there. How we can crack the code, if you will, and make CNG government vehicles a reality?” says Hughes.

This is only one of Hughes “big ideas,” he says. “These big ideas take some work – maybe a lot of work. But it is exciting to see a path forward, and could contribute mightily to cleaning up the air.”

At the same time you could rein in rising diesel costs to school and transit districts.

And give a boost to Uintah Basin’s economy, increase demand for natural gas and create any number of new jobs.