Obama's most effective environmental action?

Utah and other states like the new EPA regulations on vehicle emissions.

  • Winter driving in Salt Lake City, where the Republican governor has endorsed new vehicle emissions standards.

    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Anyone who's roamed the West in winter knows that brown smog, often trapped by atmospheric inversions, can blight even the prettiest valleys for weeks at a time. While it's tempting to blame big industrial smokestacks, that doesn't account for university towns like Missoula, Mont., and Logan, Utah, which experience episodes of winter smog even though their factories are largely academic, cranking out graduates.

Driving, it turns out, is the main culprit behind much of the West's worst air pollution, as car and truck exhaust lingers in the basins, trapped in stale air masses. That means the best strategy for combating bad air is already in our hands: our car keys. But driving is hard for governments to regulate and Westerners to give up.

Even in California – where Congress has allowed the state government to adopt vehicle-emission standards that are tougher than federal Clean Air Act standards – the air remains smoggy, partly due to the sheer number of vehicles. Most other Western states have not adopted those stricter standards, because their politics are not as green as California's.

But the politics of air pollution are shifting, and Utah – where the growing number of vehicles along the urban Wasatch Front has caused pollution increases that draw headlines and "F" grades from the American Lung Association – is unexpectedly leading the way. Groups like the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Utah Moms for Clean Air, both formed in 2007, are highlighting the pollution's health impacts. And the Utah Division of Air Quality, under pressure to comply with the Clean Air Act, spent much of this year crafting an emissions-reduction plan that even limits the fumes from hairspray and requires restaurants to capture grill exhaust.

Yet vehicle emissions remain the single biggest source – roughly 50 percent – of Utah's Wasatch Front winter smog problem; refineries, power plants and other "point" sources contribute no more than 12 percent. That's why Utah's Republican governor, Gary Herbert, has publicly endorsed what might be the Obama administration's most effective action on any environmental issue.

The so-called "Tier 3" regulations proposed last March by Obama's Environmental Protection Agency are the first major federal advance on limiting vehicle emissions in 13 years. There are two components: One forces vehicle-makers to produce cleaner-emission cars and light-duty trucks, and the other requires gasoline and diesel refiners to scrub more sulfur from gasoline. Together, the rules could cut key pollutants by as much as 80 percent, depending on the type of vehicle.

In effect, Tier 3 is comparable to putting scrubbers on all of the personal four-wheeled smokestacks we're driving. Beginning in 2017, new vehicles would be roughly equivalent to natural gas Honda Civics or the low-emissions vehicles approved by the California Air Resources Board. The EPA expects to finalize the regulations in February.

The improvements aren't free, of course: Consumers would pay another penny per gallon for gasoline, and a new vehicle's price would rise by around $130, the EPA says. By 2030, the annual total cost would be about $3.4 billion. But the benefits would be even bigger, with annual health-care savings of between $8 billion and $23 billion, as people spend less money on hospital admissions and ailments like asthma, and use less sick time off work. Up to 2,400 premature deaths would be prevented each year.

"These safeguards," says Matt Pacenza, policy director for the clean-energy advocacy group, HEAL Utah, "are the single biggest step we can take to clean up our air in coming decades."

Many national scientific, environmental and health groups are backing Tier 3 – "NO to smog! YES to cleaner cars!" says the Sierra Club. So are the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, representing regulators in nearly every state and more than 100 cities, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, as well as Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. If Tier 3 succeeds, it will have an impact throughout the U.S., particularly in counties that suffer high "PM 2.5," the soot blamed for brown winter smog. That's especially true for Utah's Wasatch Front, where the EPA projects that Tier 3 will do more to cut emissions than anywhere else.

The Tier 3 supporters in Utah include not only advocacy groups, but also lawmakers of both parties and the state Air Quality Board, whose nine members determine Utah regulations and include initially hesitant representatives of the oil, gas and petroleum industry.

Herbert might be the only modern Republican governor in the nation to ask the feds for tougher regulations on anything. In his own letter to the EPA, he called Tier 3 a "viable strategy" for dealing with Utah's PM 2.5 problems and noted the limited control states have over vehicle pollution. He says it will "help Utah achieve better air quality statewide," but warns the agency that, according to industry, the true costs of reducing sulfur will be around 6 to 9 cents a gallon. Refinery emissions may also increase, but should be offset by the reduced vehicle emissions.

Basically, Obama is helping states that have realized that strategies like high-occupancy vehicle lanes and mass transit can only go so far in reducing air pollution. Like previous federal actions that removed lead from gasoline, required emissions-inspections programs in areas with the worst pollution, cleaned up diesel fuel and began the incremental process of mandating that vehicles be cleaner and more efficient, the EPA has appeared in the nick of time, more or less announcing, "I'm the federal government and I'm here to help."

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