The 2017 General Session of the Utah Legislature ended on March 9, 2017 with new laws that affect Utah’s environment. Some high and low lights:
Alarmed by last summer’s toxic algae blooms, legislators passed HCR26 which supports restoration of Utah Lake. That’s good. It will include fixing the agricultural runoff problem that caused the bloom, too, right? Yes, please.
As far as air quality, the legislative session “fell short of grand accomplishments but also included a slew of positive measures,” according to Heal Utah. On the plus side were appropriations for updated air quality monitoring equipment, HB104 which allows a portion of vehicle registration fees to go towards emission reduction, and SB197 which offers a $1.8 million tax break for Utah refineries to produce low-sulfur “Tier 3” fuels.
The effect of Tier 3 could be significant. A Utah Clean Air white paper says switching to Tier 3 is equivalent to taking four of every five cars off the road.
However, HEAL Utah believes the refineries would have produced Tier 3 gas anyway and calls the bill “a mix of good public policy and corporate giveaway.”
As of this writing, air quality advocates were urging Governor Herbert to veto HB6 which allows unlimited wood burning for food preparation. As Heal Utah says, “you could build a bonfire in your backyard on the winter’s worst smog day as long as you have a marshmallow handy!”
Utah Clean Energy, a nonprofit public interest group, reported some good progress from the legislature on incentives for a transition to clean energy sources, but also a few setbacks, in particular failure to renew tax credits for electric cars.
The Utah Legislature allocated another $2 million to the political group Big Game Forever (BGF) to lobby Congress for “predator control,” despite a 2014 Legislative Audit that found BGF could not account for how they spent previous allocations.
Since 2011, the Utah Legislature has given millions of dollars to BGF which has become a powerful behind-the-scenes influence on Utah wildlife management.
Connecting the dots, a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute, says that since 2008, the oil and gas industry has been increasing contributions to the National Rifle Association and groups like BGF that pretend to support hunters while actively working against policies like habitat protection, science-based wildlife management and public land access for hunters and anglers.
Transfer of public lands
This is a biggie, but a bit complicated because of the way it intersects with federal legislation.
Privatization of federal public lands is currently part of the official Republican Party Platform and on their first day, the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress created a legal fiction that public lands have no monetary value in order to make it easier to sell them or transfer them to state control.
In the Utah Legislature two bills, HB63 and HB95, seek to transfer federal lands to state control by creating new state parks at Hole in the Rock and Little Sahara sand dunes. This might be good, but at the same time the Utah Legislature is seeking to undo Utah national monuments. Two joint resolutions (message bills without the force of law) advocate rescinding the Bears Ears National Monument (HCR11) and reducing the size of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument (HCR12).
The state can’t actually do these things without cooperation from the U.S. Congress, but apparently Utah legislators believe the Trump administration would consider a land swap.
A related bill, HB407 sponsored by Mike Noel (R-Kanab) and Margaret Dayton (R-Orem), describes how transferred lands would be managed. It’s not encouraging. The Utah plan emphasizes “multiple uses” though in a misguided interpretation that means all uses all at once rather than in the normal sense of different management priorities in different places.
Despite misleading claims by Governor Herbert and others that the State of Utah would be more responsive to local input, HB407 includes no transparent public process for land use planning. HB407 assigns law enforcement on transferred lands to county sheriffs, and meanwhile in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3] has sponsored a bill to “terminate the law enforcement, functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.” What could possibly go wrong?