Winter is magic in Utah: festive holiday spirit, world-class winter sports and those quiet moments after a snowfall.
But that magic will turn dark once the cloak of an inversion is thrown over our valleys and we gag as we breathe the by-products of our lives. It's been that way as long as we can remember. "It's just the way it is," we say, as if we have no power to change it.
First, an obvious point: If we can create air pollution, we have the power to change it. So if we want clean air, we can eliminate the airborne toxic by-products of our lives. Historical air quality data shows that we have done exactly that and improved the air quality even as the population has grown. How did we do that?
We did it by buying new cars. And we did it by putting best available pollution control technology to work removing toxins from the gases that are being emitted from factories, refineries, smelters and incinerators. Never mind that we were forced to be clean air advocates through provisions of the Clean Air Act, the fact is your investment has been huge and the results have been noticed.
Think about what this has cost you. The additional cost of air pollution equipment on a new car or truck is in the range of $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the model and distribution of engineering and design costs. In the 40 years since the passage of the Clean Air Act, I would estimate that we have bought on average about 250,000 cars a year or about 10 million cars and trucks.
So the buyers of those vehicles you and me have already invested about $10 billion to $30 billion into air pollution control equipment. Not even Kennecott, which has invested more than $1 billion in air pollution control technology, is even close to our individual efforts.
And you will continue to make those investments. To register those vehicles each year, one needs an emissions inspection. Say there are 1 million cars registered to owners living in our heavily populated valleys. At $33 per year per car, that's $66 million dollars a year we are paying to be inspected for air pollution regulatory compliance. And it's generally true that the newer the vehicle, the better the pollution control technology. So if you purchase a new car, you are investing in a cleaner air future. The gas you buy is more expensive so it will burn cleaner in your car.
Those investments count. Even if you despise the inspection fee and hassle, you're probably happy that a system exists to identify problem vehicles and make sure they have operational air pollution control equipment – it makes your air cleaner. And when it comes to air quality in Utah's valleys, if you are not part of the solution, you are the problem.
Now that we are getting dividends on our individual air pollution control investments, isn't it fair to ask, "Where are the comparable industrial, commercial and governmental clean air investments?"
Gov. Gary Herbert has been quoted many times saying said "Industry has done their part, now the public needs to do theirs." Really? There is no denying that corporate investments have been significant, but those investments are much less than ours. And let's be completely honest, investment in clean air technology, mandated by federal regulations, is the only significant thing that has lead to cleaner air in our air-quality-challenged valleys.
We can have clean air. We can place best available air pollution control technology on every toxic exhaust gas stream as we have done in our cars. We can insist on industrial toxic gas emission control everywhere. And we can keep investing in clean air technology by buying new, cleaner, higher-mileage cars. But, we need industry to work with us by investing generously in clean air technology for their factories as well. And we need strong political leadership to enact region-specific regulations to control region-specific air pollution sources.
It can be different. It's possible. Now, that idea is a breath of fresh air.
Kent S. Udell, Ph.D., is a professor and director of the Sustainable Energy Laboratory at the University of Utah.