PROVO, Utah – Thirty years ago, I was a kid living in a small, hot town surrounded by oil pumps. Almost everyone’s dad worked in the oil fields, and the air was often scented with a lovely, sulphurous, rotten-egg smell. “That’s the smell of money, honey,” they’d say.
And it was. The harvesting and burning of fossil fuels has grown humanity’s capacity for industry and made many rich along the way, while being a cheap-ish source of power for the rest of us.
Now, however, we can measure the cost of that fossil-fueled growth in lost money and poor health. A November 2020 BYU report calculated the costs of air pollution in Utah at almost $2 billion annually — a “conservative” estimate. Nationally, this figure is a staggering $600 billion per year. Further, dirty air costs the average Utahn about two years of life expectancy. It increases the number of traumatic premature births and contributes to rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental illness and autism, at a time when treatment costs more than ever.
It doesn’t have to be this way. This session, the legislature could have implemented the Utah Roadmap, which proposes emissions goals and economic recovery programs for impacted communities, while saving $500 million a year over the next decade, $1 billion a year by 2050, and, literally, Utahns’ lives.
Unfortunately, our legislature took a piecemeal approach to solving air problems. These “pieces” are inadequate to get us on track to substantially reducing emissions. Why isn’t the legislature doing more? Polling shows 94% of Utahns believe air quality is integral to health. In Utah County, 85% of residents support funding research into renewable energy sources. Plus, 65% believe CO2 — the most common greenhouse gas — should be regulated as a pollutant, and 61% believe global warming will harm future generations.
This year’s legislative session is over in Utah, but there are opportunities on the federal level to address the costs of fossil fuel emissions. The economic benefits of federal Clean Air Acts of 1970 and 1990 — which imposed regulations on emissions, and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support — total in the trillions of dollars.
President Joe Biden recently introduced his American Jobs Plan, which aims to reduce emissions through investment in clean energy. Could we have good-faith, nonpartisan discourse on this plan? Could we fund better, cleaner public transit? Could we invest in charging stations and battery development for electric vehicles? Could we create jobs cleaning up abandoned oil fields and mines? Could we modernize our buildings to run efficiently via renewable technology? Existing renewable energy is cheap, clean, safe and available. It’s time for us to develop updated federal policy to save taxpayer dollars and human health.
Although investing in clean energy requires startup costs, it offers long-term savings. On a small scale, my family funded our rooftop solar by refinancing our home with a lower interest rate and “cash out.” After federal and state tax credits, our house payment remained the same, but our electricity bill has been slashed 65%.
The price of electric cars is plummeting; in a year or two, hopefully my commute will run gasoline- and emission-free. And as the cost of home storage batteries also continues to fall, my family looks forward someday to the self-reliance of making all our own power — insulated from rising energy costs and blackouts. Imagine this on a national scale!
As a 12-year-old in that desert town 30 years ago, I learned about climate change from a magazine. Even then, the science was clear about what would happen if pollution continued — increased temperatures and sea levels, extreme weather, wildfires, costs to health and life. Sounds familiar, right?
Time is limited. We need to get serious about reversing these trends for our health, for our wallets and for our kids and grandkids.
I’m starting by running on sunshine.
What will you do?