By: Denni Cawley
Despite ongoing denial of climate change and the risks of air pollution by certain politicians, environmental regulation has been essential for states and cities to protect public health. But expanding fossil fuel extraction and weakening environmental regulations — the core of President-elect Donald Trump’s approach to environmental policy — would be disastrous for the communities that house energy infrastructure.
If fulfilled, Trump’s campaign promises to scrap the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement would be catastrophic for Utah and the Southwest, which is already suffering hotter temperatures, relentless drought, more dust storms and wildfires and decimated forests and rangeland. Indeed, climate change is expected to afflict the Great Basin with the greatest temperature rise in the United States.
When we look back at the landscape of Utah years from now, we hope it is not a picture of bounty and beauty lost. Utah’s economy and the health of its people, particularly children, are already threatened by fossil fuel industries. Our economies are subject to the boom and bust cycle of fossil fuels — many of which are in permanent decline. Counties such as Duchesne and Uintah face the loss of jobs, income and tax revenue to fund critical services. With fossil fuel prices falling, a surplus of supply and a global shift toward renewable energy, these communities are hurting. Tying their economic future to a 19th century fuel source is shortsighted.
Ramping up production would increase consequences for communities near oil and gas wells, oil shale, tar sands extraction, and refineries. People who live near fossil fuel infrastructure face serious health threats. High infant mortality rates have been documented in Vernal, and are likely connected to the oil and gas industry’s toxic emissions. This dilemma will persist unless we decouple our rural economies from dirty energy, which requires leadership from state and federal government.
Utah’s metropolitan areas consistently rank among America’s top ten cities for spikes in air pollution, composed of a unique, synergistic mix of particulate matter, ozone and hazardous volatile organic compounds such as benzene — much of it from regional oil and gas activities. Smog traps pollutants from vehicles and refinery operations near populated areas, burdening families with medical bills from acute respiratory symptoms and seeing their children sick. A study of Uinta Basin atmosphere in 2012 and 2013 by the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research showed levels of air pollution equivalent to 100 million cars. It would be unconscionable to allow such nightmarish pollution to become even worse.
Though the EPA’s recent requirements for new pollution controls on the Huntington and Hunter coal-powered plants were cheered on by Utah residents, the new administration’s direction on environmental issues quickly ended the celebration. The signs moving forward are troubling, even with Trump recently admitting that there could be a link between global warming and human activity. In Utah, the Monument Butte oil and gas development — a project that could add 5,750 more wells to 11,500 existing wells — is set to move forward.
New proposed fees from the monopoly energy utility company and a seemingly complicit Legislature are threatening the solar industry. And resuming federal coal land leasing would put the economies of depressed Western towns at the mercy of dying industries.
Historically, the EPA has taken steps to restrain reckless resource extraction where state politicians failed to step in. We fear that, under this new administration, any existing measures of discipline may be lost. If Trump sacrifices communities for corporate profit, who will stand up and protect the beauty and health of Utah?
We hope that Trump’s ominous campaign rhetoric is abandoned as the template for his administration’s environmental policy. We hope that he quickly sees the danger and foolishness of denying climate change. In the meantime, Utah’s state leaders must step up and support renewable energy, strong environmental rules and better pollution controls on all emitters.
We hope our fears are unwarranted. America’s western communities cannot afford any more setbacks in the advance of clean air, clean energy and a clean future.
Denni Cawley is the executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.