Is Conservative Utah Embracing Environmental Conservation?
First, let’s review what Utah legislators did and did not do for the environment this year. Our epic drought got their attention, so they rewarded water conservation (HB 121), required metering of secondary water (HB 242), allocated $40 million temporary funding to keep Great Salt Lake from disappearing (HB 410), and made selling Utah Lake to developers more difficult (HB 240). HB 145 improved preparation for wildfires, SB 136 encouraged reduction of diesel pollution, SB 140 encouraged high-density housing near TRAX stations, and SB 152 reduced the limits that HOAs (homeowners’ associations) can place on electric vehicle chargers, solar panels, and low-water landscaping.
All eight of these bills passed with huge bipartisan majorities, and only a handful of legislators opposed them. In the past, voting on environmental bills was far less unified.
Could it be that concern for the environment is growing among our legislators, reflecting public concern for an endangered earth? To see how Salt Lake County and Utah County legislators voted on these bills, see Appendices to this policy brief.
Decrease Fossil Fuel Use with a Carbon Fee and Dividend
A more skeptical assessment of our legislators’ newfound environmental consensus is that few controversial environmental bills made it out of committee for floor votes, and many important proposals were killed early.
Examples of the above include proposed “carbon” fees on fossil fuels with various compensation “dividends” to Utahns affected by the increases, as in HJR 3 and SB 187 The principle of both bills is widely accepted by both Republican and Democratic experts as the best way to reduce pollution and climate change: tax the offending fuels gradually to reduce their use, but simultaneously reduce another tax, as on groceries. This is captured by the slogan “Tax pollution, not potatoes.”
If we want the market to support good environmental policy, prices must reflect reality. At present they do not. The enormous costs of pollution and climate change caused by fossil fuel use—earlier death, pulmonary and cardiovascular damage, wildfires, drought, floods, tornadoes—are not reflected in fossil fuel prices. Economists call these externalities, to which the consumer is blinded. Exposing those costs with some sort of carbon fee as proposed in SB 187 would help the market work for and not against the world in which our children and grandchildren will live.
Update Our Outdated Residential Building Code
Highest on our legislators’ to-do list should be updating our residential building code, which is fifteen years out of date. Community members and legislators should support adoption of the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for Utah because that will significantly reduce residents’ monthly utility bills as well as air pollution.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that building to the IECC residential standards rather than to our current outdated code would cost only modestly more per house and reduce each house’s energy costs by 17%, saving $325 per year and equaling the extra investment in three years.
Despite the clear economic and environmental benefits to residents, the Utah Home Builders’ Association is trying to weaken the IECC standards that Utah should adopt. They cite the present high cost of Utah housing and argue against adding anything to raise the price. However, that view is penny-wise and pound-foolish, because, with IECC building standards, as noted above, the home-owner’s energy cost savings on utility bills pays for both a larger down payment and an annual incremental mortgage cost by the third year!
Utah’s conservatism should be far-sighted rather than myopic.
Get More Electric Vehicles in Utah
At the request of the Legislature, the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute in 2020 published “The Utah Roadmap: Positive Solutions on Climate and Air Quality.” Milestone 5 of that document was “Position Utah as the market-based EV (Electrical Vehicle) state.” The good news is that Utah State Tax Commission data indicate that the number of EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) is rapidly increasing in Utah. In 2020 there were only 8,041 EVs (0.3%) and only 4,481 PHEVs (0.17%) for a total of 12,522 (0.47%) of all motor vehicles registered in Utah. As of February 2022, the Commission listed 16,407 EVs (0.59 %) and 7,073 PHEVs (0.25%) for a total of 23,480 (0.8%). Thus, in the last two years the total number of such low-emission vehicles has nearly doubled from .47% to .8% of motor vehicles * registered in Utah. Despite their small total number and obvious value for reducing CO2 and pollution, the Legislature has increased registration fees for them because they contribute little in gas taxes for roads.The bad news is that purchasing low-emission vehicles in Utah continues to be difficult. A major Toyota dealer in Salt Lake City recently had no Toyota Prius (hybrid) vehicles or Prius plug-ins available. Its marketing director indicated that Toyota will allocate only two or three PHEV vehicles to Utah per year. Most of them go to twelve “green” states such as California, Colorado, and Vermont where Zero Emission Vehicle laws require gradually increasing the number of electrical vehicles over the next decade.
Conclusions: Good Start, More to Do
It is possible that conservative Utah may actually becoming more attuned to the need for environmental conservation. A few ecological issues like the drought attracted most legislators’ attention and bipartisan action this year. However much remains to be done, such as reducing fossil fuel use, improving our residential building code to international standards and speeding Utah’s conversion to electric vehicles.
We all want to ensure that the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit from us will be livable.
Note: * Click the last link “motor vehicles,” and select the desired year. A spreadsheet will be downloaded. Scroll down to the bottom of that sheet and select the tab labeled “OH Reg by Vtype and Fuel type.” That provides another spreadsheet with several columns, including one column (G) labeled “Electric” and another (M) labeled “PHEV.” Grand totals of each are listed at the bottom of each column.