Clean Air: It’s Time to Act

A couple of years ago I received a call that went something like this: “Representative Handy, I’m one of your constituents. When are you and the legislature doing about our dirty air?”

I distinctly remember the conversation because the caller was somewhat exercised and I wanted to hear him out. And besides, although I didn’t know him personally, I recognized his name and voice as a prominent advertising lawyer.

My initial answer was something like, “Well, we’re doing all we can but we can’t legislate geography.” He didn’t like this answer one bit and let me have it saying it was a lame excuse and why didn’t Utah enact some of California’s strict, clean-air regulations?

It was one of those experiences when “I remembered where I was.” It made a strong impression on me and I vowed never again to blame our problems exclusively on our geography.

I decided to get myself educated and soon determined that although we already had some modest clean-air incentives on the books, there was more we could do. 

In the current legislative session I have three bills that I believe, taken together, will make some headway toward directly cleaning the air. They’re aimed at our biggest problem: tail-pipe emissions.  Here’s a summary:

HB 49 Clean Fuel School Buses and Infrastructure

This bill was introduced and debated during the 2014 session and found overwhelming support. Unfortunately, it didn’t get funded.

Essentially, it’s an initiative from the Utah State Office of Education’s Transportation Task Force, which identified over 1,000 “dirty diesel” school buses throughout the state.

School transportation funding has fallen short by over $20 million over the past 10 years and the task force decided that with Utah’s economy purring along it was time for a catch up appropriation specifically directed to clean air. 

However, instead of just adding the appropriation to the general school transportation fund, the task force determined to earmark it into an endowment. In order to obtain a grant, school districts would bring a 50% match, which makes this a $40 million clean-air initiative. Plus, the fuel savings will pay for the investment over the course of just a few years!

Governor Herbert’s budget includes this initiative as a priority. I was encouraged recently by comments from Amanda Smith, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, who remarked that “school buses pollute the air and pose unacceptable health risks to children.” Any parent or grandparent of children riding in school buses should be vitally interested in this legislation.

Although the $20 million budget request won’t solve the problem immediately, it will go a long way to jump start a critical clean-air and public health initiative that will take some years to finally resolve.

HB 15 Clean Fuel Amendments and Rebates

Since 2008, the state of Utah has allowed a tax credit of up to $2,500 for conversions to alternate fuel vehicles. The procedure has been clunky because the tax credit is, of course, only realized when taxes are filed. Only about 400 individuals/vehicles have taken advantage of this CNG option since its inception.

My legislation seeks to replace the tax credit with a tax rebate or grant. It would work like this: Say a conversion costs $5,000. The individual pays $2,500 and the shop applies to the state of Utah for the balance. I think it will stimulate and accelerate more conversions for older cars to alternate fuels, including CNG. Unfortunately, with the price of gasoline and the price of CNG almost reaching parity, there may be little incentive for more conversions until the price of gasoline goes up, which we all believe is going to happen sooner than later.

Additionally, legislation from my colleague, Rep. Lowry Snow from St. George, HB 95 Extension of Tax Credits for Energy Efficient Vehicles, is being incorporated into my bill so that we can have a powerful clean fuel, clean air bill.

Heavy Duty Truck Natural Gas Incentives

In conjunction with the Utah Trucking Association, Questar, BluLNG, and other constituents, this bill seeks to provide modest incentives for trucks in the 7 & 8 classification registered in Utah. These are garbage trucks, tow trucks and semi trucks. Fifty one percent of their mileage has to occur in Utah. The amount of the tax rebate decreases as established fuel sales benchmarks are set.

Polluting trucks are a major problem, and contribute more to our diminished air quality than cars, so this legislation could have a big impact.

Another important part of the legislation is that it establishes a schedule to bring the currently discounted fuel tax rate for CNG, currently 8.5 cents per gallon, to parity with traditional fuels over six years. CNG vehicles need to pay their fair share for the upkeep and maintenance of our roads and I think a phased approach is the way to go.

This bill is still in the drafting stages and I’m looking forward to the input of many so that we come up with excellent legislation.

Yes, our geography is part of our air-quality problem but there are modest incentives that government can and should provide. No more lame excuses from me; it’s about time and the addition of more modest investments of tax money from the people of the state of Utah. After all, clean air is in the best interests of us all.