What would it take to clean up our air?

Posted at 10:13 PM, Feb 12, 2015

FOX 13 News and the Utah Foundation are partners in a series of reports asking "What would it take" to solve Utah's biggest challenges? This is the first of those reports.

SALT LAKE CITY -- What would it take to clean up Utah's air completely?

"The way we do that is everybody has to leave," said Research Director of the Utah Foundation, Shawn Teigen.

And if we want to stay?

"Every once in a while, people say we should cut down the mountains or install big fans," said Kerry Kelly, Associate Director of the University of Utah's Program for Air Quality, Health and Society.

In other words, air along the Wasatch Front is not going to be completely free of particulate pollution in the winter anytime soon.

Shutting down point source emitters like refineries, Kennecott Copper, Magcorp, and Utah's large universities would only buy us about eight extra hours of clean air during a winter inversion.

Parking every car, train and plane would get us three extra days.

Turning off every furnace in our homes and smaller businesses would buy a couple more days.

Any one of the three options would be an economic disaster, at least in the short-term.

So what would it take to make a dent without ruining our economy?

Matt Pacenza, director of HEAL Utah, said UTA's TRAX and FrontRunner services need to be accompanied by a revamped bus system.

"We have to get folks out of their cars and taking advantage of mass transit," he said. "Buses are the place where we really need to boost it up and beef it up."

And another improvement is already in the works. The Environmental Protection Agency calls it Tier Three. It's a higher standard for fuels and cars.

Many Tier Three cars are already on the road, thanks to early legislation in the state of California. You'll know them by the label "PZEV", standing for "Partial Zero Emission Vehicle."

The new cars move the catalytic converter from the tailpipe to the engine compartment. Catalytic Converters clean particulates out of a car's emissions, and they work best when warm. The proximity to the engine warms them up during the crucial first minutes of a drive when most pollution is released.

Tier Three gasoline will have one-third of the sulfur contained in fuel now sold.

An EPA paper on the impact of tier three showed nine counties in the United States that would benefit most from Tier Three. Six of the nine counties are in Utah: Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, and Utah.

Still, Utah could miss the Tier Three transformation.

That's because the EPA requirement demands that the "average pool" of gas has to meet Tier Three standards, which could be accomplished by cleaning up larger refineries outside of Utah and leaving Utah's smaller refineries as they are.

Utah's governor has urged oil companies to make the transition in their Utah operations, and Lee Peacock with the Utah Petroleum Association said they want to support cleaner air.

"We obviously recognize we have an important role as major industrial sources in a very populated area," Peacock said.

But Peacock said there are no guarantees: "Again, we're trying to be good corporate partners, but as far as saying it will absolutely be manufactured here, I can't do that right now. I think companies are still trying to determine what the best approach is."