Carbon pricing bill on its way to Utah state legislature

Rep. Joel Briscoe, carbon pricing

In 2017, Rep. Joel Briscoe (D-UT) intends to introduce a statewide carbon pricing bill in Utah. (Photo by Kristan Jacobsen Photography)

By Mary Gable

Every winter, in Salt Lake City and other areas encircled by mountains, the atmosphere’s typical state turns on its head. Warm air rises into the upper atmosphere and settles there like a lid on a pot. And the cool air stuck below starts to stagnate—trapping harmful air pollutants from cars, factories, and power plants inside.

It’s called a winter inversion. It’s a natural phenomenon, but the pollution it brings is anything but. And it can lead to serious health problems, especially in children, the elderly, and anyone who spends time outdoors.

Thanks to this yearly event, air quality will likely be on the minds of Utah legislators when they return to session on January 23. It might just be the perfect time for a conversation about carbon emissions.

A first for Utah

Representative Joel Briscoe, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, will introduce a plan during the 2017 General Session to put a fee on carbon emissions statewide.

“We need a carbon tax in Utah,” Rep. Briscoe said in a statement. “Current policy is heading in the wrong direction. As a cofounder of the Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus, I have committed my legislative service to doing whatever I can to assist in cleaning up Utah’s air.”

While the specifics of Rep. Briscoe’s plan haven’t been revealed, it could have many features in common with Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s proposed carbon fee and dividend. Briscoe has stated that the fee would be implemented “upstream” on fossil fuel producers and would be revenue-neutral. He has also voiced support for assisting Utah’s poorest citizens as part of the plan.

CCL applauds Rep. Briscoe for his leadership and concern for the people of his state. Bill Barron, CCL Wild West Regional Coordinator and two-time candidate for U.S. Senate, says, “Introducing this bill is very courageous of Representative Briscoe. It shows how the idea of pricing carbon is gaining traction.”

Barron adds, “People on both sides of the aisle are concerned about their futures and their children’s futures. Representative Briscoe sees our children as our most important bottom line. What parent wouldn’t agree with that?”

A growing movement  

Utah remains highly dependent on fossil fuels, but the state could be approaching a tipping point. Last year, backed by CCL, Salt Lake City passed a joint resolution calling on Congress to implement a national carbon fee and dividend. In July, the city announced a commitment to transition to 100 percent renewables by 2032 and reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2040. Park City followed suit in October.

Putting a price on carbon would be a perfect way to start making progress toward these goals. The concept has support from Utah’s business, civic, and religious leaders. It has also gained the attention of the state’s tourism and winter sports community, who make up one of Utah’s most important industries. Black Diamond Equipment, a major climbing and ski gear manufacturer, as well as professional athletes Julian Carr, Caroline Gleich, and Angel Collinson have all spoken out in favor of a carbon fee and dividend. Nationwide advocacy organizations Protect Our Winters and the National Ski Areas Association are also on board.

“It’s time to talk about the fact that climate change is a fact in Utah,” Rep. Briscoe has said.

We couldn’t agree more. Barron says, “Utah’s air quality is among the worst in the country during the winter, and we’re 46th in the nation when it comes to production of renewables. But we can change that.”

He’s encouraged by Rep. Briscoe’s plan. “It’s an important step in the right direction. I can’t wait to see how it shakes out.”

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Mary Gable is a writer and editor who focuses on sustainability and innovation. She's based in Seattle, but takes her work on the road whenever she can.