Has Conservative Utah Turned a Corner on Climate Change?

A climate report ordered by the Legislature offers a roadmap for tackling warming and pollution at the same time, an approach that could bridge the partisan divide.

Jan 22, 2020
Smog trapped in the Salt Lake valley by a temperature inversion. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

The “Utah Roadmap” could become one of the most aggressive climate action plans in a conservative state, depending on how the legislature responds. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

When Utah lawmakers start their legislative session next week, they'll have a roadmap waiting for them that could become one of the nation's most aggressive climate action plans in a Republican-led state—and potentially a path forward for other conservative states looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That the proposal even exists signals a major shift in thinking in a state where legislators for years have publicly questioned—and sometimes ridiculed—climate science.  

Led by a University of Utah economics think tank, proponents of the seven-point strategy managed to dodge political potholes by emphasizing widely supported goals like cleaning up air pollution and stressing economic benefits, an approach some policy experts say could provide a model for bipartisan action on climate change in other conservative states.

"That's the sort of framing that can help change the conversation in a way that does bridge partisan divides," said Jay Turner, an environmental politics and policy researcher at Wellesley College and co-author of the book "The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump."

 

Conservatives in the State Capitol haven't abandoned fossil fuels. They actively support lawsuits to open up West Coast shipping terminals and maintain a $53 million fund to help build export capacity for shipping Utah coal overseas. But widespread public concern about air pollution has also made them more receptive to emissions reductions.

Utah's shift started with high school students raising their voices. In 2018, they succeeded in persuading lawmakers to pass a resolution acknowledging the risks of climate change that Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed. Then, last year, the legislature voted to provide $200,000 for the University of Utah's business school to report on the state's air pollution and climate change problems and recommend solutions. 

"I really think that this is a great indicator of the progress we've made as a state," said Piper Christian, one of the students who lobbied the legislature and is now a University of Utah sophomore majoring in politics and environmental studies. "I want to stress that this is one more step, definitely not the end of the road. Now we need to see these actions through."

The draft proposal, "Utah Roadmap," was released in early January and suggests reducing carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. Another of the 7 points presses state leaders to step up participation in "national discussions about how to harness the power of market forces and new technologies to reduce carbon emissions in a way that protects health, sustains economic development, and offers other benefits to Utahns."  

Infographic: Utah Still Relies Heavily on Coal

The roadmap focuses heavily on the state's air pollution problems, proposing ways to cut that pollution in half over the next three decades by taking steps that will at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That includes dramatically reducing coal-fired power, which supplies nearly two-thirds of Utah's electricity, and replacing it with renewable energy, as well as increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations to boost EV use in the state. 

The state's major utility companies and climate and health scientists were involved in helping shape the plan, and the response so far has been mostly positive.

Rob Davies, a Utah State University physicist who has been warning about Utah's climate change vulnerabilities for more than a decade, said that, although the roadmap itself gave climate risk too little attention, he's not aware of any conservative state with stronger emissions-reduction goals than the roadmap proposes. 

"The one missed opportunity in this report is the acknowledgment that we are in a genuine emergency, a genuine crisis," he said. "This still doesn't get us to where we need to go, but it's quite possible that it puts us on a track that could get us to where we need to go."

Framing the Conversation to Bridge Partisan Divides

Utah's approach reflects a national trend: Climate action, spurred by young Americans, that ties economic benefits to better health while minimizing polarizing political debates.

As recently as 2017, Utah lawmakers turned away the students who sought state-level action to rein in climate change. The state legislature had passed a non-binding resolution a few years earlier implying climate change was a conspiracy and demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs." 

Coal is transported on a conveyor belt at the Savage Energy Terminal in Price, Utah. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

Utah has a high rate of carbon emissions relative to the number of residents in the state. Annually, 19.3 metric tons of carbon are emitted per capita, compared to the national average of 16. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

The students retooled their proposal in 2018, framing it as support for "environmental and economic stewardship," and garnered enough support not only to win passage but also to spur lawmakers to request the roadmap the following year.

"I don't think I will ever be fully satisfied with the amount of work we do to address the climate crisis just because the scale of the problem is so immense," Christian said. "Instead, I try to focus on the enormity of the progress that this [roadmap] is providing."

Involving Utilities and Everyone Else

Utah has some catching up to do. 

Overall, CO2 emissions in the state might be small on a national scale, but annual per capita emissions are relatively high: 19.3 metric tons per person, compared with the national average of 16 tons per person. Utah's emissions are higher than many of its neighbors in the West, including Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and California. And the projected addition over the next three decades of 2 million people—the state's current population is just over 3 million is certain to make emissions reductions tougher.

So far, the roadmap has received little public criticism. That could be in part because such a wide range of groups were involved in drafting it over the last 6 months. 

Infographic: Utah's CO2 Emissions Over Times

The 37-member advisory group that helped shape the proposal included Electric utilities Dominion Energy and Rocky Mountain Power, clean energy advocates, climate scientists, medical professionals and local and state regulators. 

The proposal frames action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a means of  improving air quality, tackling the two environmental issues as quality of life problems with economic implications for energy companies and their customers. 

Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah's business school, led the report's development with what she calls "the Utah Way" in mind: an approach that outsiders might describe as a careful navigation of business and political interests.

"The [diverse] balance of people at the table helps us get to recommendations that I think are much more likely to occur, that will have fewer unintended consequences and really help our state," said Gochnour, an economist who worked for three of Utah's Republican governors before joining former Gov. Mike Leavitt as leader of the George W. Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency and, later, the Salt Lake Chamber.

An Inflection Point for Renewables and Climate

Gochnour's standing in the community might be part of the reason the roadmap debuted with strong support, but she pointed out that external factors are also driving the case for change in Utah.

One is public concern. Even though polls show Utahns trail other Americans in their concern about climate change, (55 percent statewide compared to 60 percent nationally, according to the Yale Climate Opinion maps), more than 90 percent count air quality as a top priority. 

"You can focus a lot on air pollution emissions, and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Gochnour. "So we think that's just a really important way to build common ground in our state."

Solar panels in downtown Salt Lake City at the home of the Utah Jazz produce enough clean energy to power 89 NBA basketball games and around 100 homes, while displacing about 500 tons of coal. Credit: Judy Fahys/InsideClimate News

Solar panels in downtown Salt Lake City at the home of the Utah Jazz produce enough clean energy to power 89 NBA basketball games and around 100 homes, while displacing about 500 tons of coal. Credit: Judy Fahys/InsideClimate News

The other factor is the transformation of energy markets, where renewables are becoming more affordable and power companies are realigning their portfolios to include more green energy. The roadmap notes that Rocky Mountain Power plans to close both of its coal-fired power plants in Utah by 2042, and by 2038 the company will have closed 20 of the 24 power plants currently serving the Utah customers in its six-state service area.

"I think we are at an inflection point," said Gochnour.

Her assessment is backed by some real-world evidence. For instance, 24 cities and counties in Utah signed up for a renewable energy program created by the Legislature last year that, working with the Utah Public Service Commission and Rocky Mountain Power, sets ground rules for them to achieve 100 percent renewable energy commitments by 2030.

"More than 25 percent of the state [population] has this new opportunity," said Lindsay Beebe, of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, noting that her group will keep up the pressure on communities and regulators to ensure the program succeeds. "It's really exciting."

Another indicator is the investment in electric vehicle infrastructure and research that Herbert has proposed in his 2021 budget plan, released on Wednesday. It calls for $100 million in infrastructure spending and includes $3 million for EV research at Utah State University.

There's no guarantee that state leaders will pass the bills and spend the money necessary to accomplish the roadmap's goals. But even Utah's most ardent climate leaders generally give the roadmap high marks.

Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy and a member of the roadmap's advisory board, said the suggestions reflect Utah values, especially the notion of creating a better future for children and grandchildren.

"Even though it keeps me up at night, worrying about how fast we have to move, I still think that this is a big step," she said. "It gives me a renewed hope that a conservative state is moving past the partisanship on climate, and it gives me hope that, as a nation, that we will be able to move forward."

An earlier version of this article misidentified the university affiliation of Rob Davies. He is a physicist at Utah State University.

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