Saturday, May 4, 2013

Stop Sweating the Small Stuff!

Source: Francisco Kjolseth, Salt Lake Tribune
Two remarkable and juxtaposing stories about Utah air quality appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune this week.  In the first (Utah Governor Declares Clean Air Month), Judy Fays reports that Governor Gary Herbert has declared May as Clean Air Month.  His ideas for improving air quality?  Updating gas cans made before 2009 that are prone to leaking volatile organic compounds (VOCs), using low-VOC or no-VOC paints, and replacing old yard equipment.

The governor noted that "simple steps can add up." Yeah, they add up, but not to much.  These steps will a put minimal dent into Salt Lake's air quality problems.

An article appearing the next day (More Pollution Cuts Needed for Utah to Meet Clean-Air Standards) illustrates just how big of a gorilla that we are dealing with.  Quoting the article (also by Judy Fays),
"Updated number-crunching shows that the clean-air fixes regulators already have proposed won’t do as much as originally expected for the spikes of PM2.5, which sometime shrouds northern Utah in a brown fog for weeks at a time in winter. In fact, Utah County needs to cut its wintertime pollution by another 20 percent, and a five-county area around the Salt Lake Valley needs to reduce emissions by 10 percent more to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health-based standards. And that’s on top of tons and tons of pollution that’s already averted in the Utah Division of Air Quality’s six-year plan."
When it comes to big challenges like this, we need to stop sweating the small stuff.

From a personal choice perspective, I see the following as perhaps most important for improving air quality: (1) considering proximity to your school or work when making a decision to rent or purchase a residence, (2) considering mpg and emissions when purchasing a new or used automobile, and (3) considering taking alternative transportation during the buildup and persistence of poor air quality events.  Perhaps you could add consideration of energy efficiency and heating type in your choice of residence, but I'm trying to go after the 800 pound gorilla here: tailpipe emissions.  Of these three, only one could have an immediate impact (#3).

Personal choices are based on many factors of course, so I'm not arguing that everyone should start shopping for a new home and hybrid.   For many individuals, that's not even an option.  What I am arguing for is analysis.  We are bombarded with many environmental choices that have negligible impact.  What I'm interested in seeing is a quantitative analysis of how personal choices impact our air quality and where we can make the biggest difference.  An example is presented by Michael Brower and Warren Leon in their book The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.  

Although that book bears some relevance for our air quality challenges, it would be very interesting to see a similar analysis for Salt Lake air pollution.  Perhaps it has been done already.  If not, conducting such an analysis might prove useful.


  1. I have heard that Utah has significant tax rebates for cars that can run on compressed natural gas, and that the Salt Lake area has one of the highest concentrations of filling stations for these. I am curious how the emissions from these compare to gasoline engines.

    1. Natural gas burns much more cleanly than gasoline -

  2. David, Utah's NG incentive program delivers very little benefit at high cost. New gasoline vehicles have such advanced pollution control that NG has little or no benefit. The program was developed when NG had emission advantages, but was always designed mainly to benefit Questar.

    In 1998, Gov Bangerter convened a Clean Air Commission, which issued a final report in March 1991. The results of that work improved air quality substantially. I think we need another such effort. Summary of recommendations [click on 'download' below image of page] Technical reports of 5 working committees

    1. kvd: One of the positive benefits of writing this blog is that my eyes are opened to items like the reports you mention above. Much thanks for sharing. Perhaps we will do a post in the future on these reports - if I can find the time to review them properly.