Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Time right for Utah wood burning ban

Published in Standard Examiner, January 12, 2015, Ogden, Utah


Governor Herbert recognizes the inversion problem in Utah, especially along the Wasatch Front, and is pushing for a ban on wood burning to heat homes ( Recently Salt Lake County decided to ban such fireplaces. There is no excuse for homeowners to continue to burn wood to heat homes, given that natural gas prices are so low. Wood burners and other such polluters must realize that clean air is a public good and its pollution causes health hazards to all.

Public goods such as clean air and water are distinct from private goods. A private good provides benefits only to the person who pays the price. If a person uses clean air to emit pollutants, he/she uses that resource without paying the price, hence free market leads to its overuse. In the case of Wasatch Front, we have an inversion problem because too much pollution overwhelms the capacity of the air shed (so called sink) to clean itself. Thus it imposes health cost and property damage. Therefore, the market fails in the absence of regulation and/or price for the resource air.

As opposed to direct regulation, it would be more economical to impose tax price on polluters to promote cleaner air. But political courage is lacking to impose such a price. Hence we have to tolerate regulations, a less efficient strategy to curb pollutants in the air.

EPA standards for small particulate matter (PM 2.5) require that annual average concentration should not exceed 12 micrograms per cubic meter, and daily average should not exceed 35 micrograms per cubic meter. The Atmospheric Department, University of Utah (, reported that during 1999-2005 in some mid-winter weeks, more than half of the days had PM 2.5 concentrations above 17.5. Actual 24 hr average concentration has worsened (though below EPA standard) when I compared data from UDEQ for December 2004 to December 2013 and January 2005 to January 2014.

The enforcement of pollution standards has taken a backseat to politics in Utah. It appears that political ideology has assigned higher priority to job growth at the cost of clean air, developed a shortsighted view on health benefits to Utahns, and has not recognized that job growth in the service based economy is greatly influenced by environmental amenities. It is ironic that defenders of free market do not recognize that environmental degradation is the result of market failure, because air, water and open spaces are common property resources. The solution is for government to intervene and impose a tax price on polluters to incentivize them to efficiently use natural resources to reduce harmful effects.

A recent academic paper in the journal Economic Inquiry, January 2015, by Robert Innes and Arnab Mitra (IM), sheds some light on the issue of political influence on enforcement of regulations under the Clean Air Act (CAA). Their findings are relevant for Utah.

EPA proposes a budget and the inspection rate of facilities in each Congressman’s district. Inspection rate and enforcement of regulations have a deterrent effect on emissions of pollutants. However, even though Congressmen do not directly convey their preferences over the EPA budget, they do let EPA know about their preferences for inspection intensity. IM used data for a sample of Congressional elections, “close” with a margin of victory of less than 2.5% and “open” where no incumbent was running, from1989 to 2005. Controlling for other variables affecting inspection rates such as income, population density and regional differences, IM found that as opposed to Democrats, new Republican representatives lead to the decrease in Clean Air Act inspection rates by 11% to 12%.

It seems that the dominance of Republican Party and its ideology in Utah plays a significant part in the lack of air quality enforcement. I hope politicians pay more attention to science and adverse affects of pollution on human health, property and future job losses in clean industries in Utah.

Mathur is former chair and professor of economics and now professor emeritus, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Ogden.

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