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Take a deep breath Boise … and then think hard about ‘the most significant issue of our time’

Air Quality.jpg
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Treasure Valley emission testing is expected to go away in the summer of 2023.

Climate change is inevitable and, with every passing day, increasingly dangerous. Changing our lives to meet what Boise’s Climate Action Manager Steve Hubble says is “the most significant issue of our time” can only succeed through a collective effort.

  • -Stop burning things to warm ourselves
  • -Curb emissions
  • -Electrify more vehicles

Those are among the lowest hanging fruit in the solutions that Boise is reaching for, in an effort to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Hubble joined Boise City Councilman Patrick Bageant, who is also a member of the Ada County Air Quality Board, to visit with George Prentice to talk about a variety of issues, including the history of the air quality board, where the city currently is in attempting attain its 2050 goal, and the future of electric vehicles in Idaho’s capital city.

“I mean, it really is the most significant issue of our time. And it’s very important to me to do good work on it and meet the expectations of the community and our leadership.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I’m George Prentice. We're going to take a deep breath for the next several minutes… several breaths… as we talk about the fragile nature of our air quality… and how much impact we have individually and collectively in that quality. Patrick Bageant is here - Boise City Councilman and a member of the Ada County Air Quality Board. Steve Hubble is here – Climate Action Manager for the City of Boise. Gentlemen, good morning to you both.

PATRICK BAGEANT: Morning, George.

STEVE HUBBLE: Thanks for having us today.

PRENTICE: Councilman, up top, I am curious, as a layperson, if you could give us a thumbnail on what the Air Quality Board does.  And I'm particularly interested in its future, given that the state legislature wants to end Treasure Valley emission testing by this time next year.

BAGEANT: Great question, because…I'll give you the thumbnail… but the issue is at least as big as your hand or your arm. Starting in 1984, we had issues with carbon monoxide in the air here. And I think a good analogy to think about is lead like lead in gasoline. The EPA, in its way, instructed the State of Idaho to come up with a plan to manage carbon monoxide in emissions. And the plan that we came up with that the EPA approved was a set of implementation plans that included emissions testing. Since that time, a number of things have converged to make our carbon monoxide, particularly in auto emissions… not really an issue anymore. The biggest one is… advances in vehicle technology. Cars just don't emit carbon monoxide the way that they used to. And so, since 1991, we've never had an issue with violating or exceeding the health limits for carbon monoxide. The EPA's plan and the statutory framework provides that if you go long enough with no issue, you can request, if you demonstrate and prove that eliminating your emissions testing plan will not affect the levels of carbon monoxide relative to that safe limit. So that's the process that the DEQ is going through now. They're expected at the end of this year to submit a bunch of information to the EPA that says emissions testing in the Treasure Valley and in Ada County is not meaningfully moving the needle on carbon monoxide. We can stay below a safe limit without it, and therefore, we don't need this maintenance plan anymore. The writing's been on the wall for a long time; and so the legislature is already moved to repeal some certain statutes. But it's really a big question for.the governor's. DEQ and Joe Biden's EPA. Do we or do we not need emissions testing in the Treasure Valley to stay below the carbon monoxide limit? And so, one thing I always try to point out to people is that those two entities will reach an agreement. And if Joe Biden's EPA and Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality agree that we don't need emissions testing, it's probably because we don't need emissions testing as opposed to some other more nefarious political motivation.

PRENTICE: What's the future of the board if indeed that testing goes away?

BAGEANT: Well, the board's job is to implement the plan… to implement the plan to keep carbon monoxide below that safe human level. And the plan is auto emissions testing. So, the board's job is to implement auto emissions testing. If the testing is no longer part of the plan or if the EPA agrees that we don't need it, then the board has no function. The question then is: Do we keep the board, despite it having no function or not? And we had some conversations, small conversations, at the City of Boise about what to do because we have implemented am ordinance as well. But it's a decision to make after the end of this year when hopefully the EPA and the DEQ arrive at a conclusion as to what to do with the emissions testing here.

PRENTICE: Not to get too deep in the weeds, but do you have conversations about an evolution of that board? Not a “mission drift,” if you will… but maybe… I would hope that we all get smarter, a board like this, I would guess, could do a lot of good.

BAGEANT: Well, the North Star for everyone… and I think everyone would agree with this, is that we all want clean air and water in Boise, in the Treasure Valley… in Idaho. Like everybody agrees on that, it's likely to be the case that although carbon monoxide really isn't a problem anymore, I think there are 80 areas in the country where these types of plans have been implemented and all of them are in attainment for carbon monoxide. he technology has just changed. But we're likely to see I mean, we all grow and change and learn things, right? We may see issues with ozone. We may see issues with fine particulate matter. And I guess I would say rather than use a 30 plus year old program designed for carbon monoxide to address new issues as they come, we should meet them squarely and look at them and determine what they need. If they need an air quality board, we should create one. If they need some other form of regulatory or implementation type framework to tackle them, then we should do that. So, the answer the short answer is, as new issues arise, we should have new solutions that are tailored and matched to address them squarely. And that doesn't necessarily mean keeping the old framework for the old problem.

PRENTICE: Steve Hubble. could you remind our listeners about the ambitious goals of the City of Boise and where we are as far as clean electricity and being carbon-neutral?

HUBBLE: The city's been very active, particularly in the last ten plus years, with various climate action programs and then really culminating and wrapping up, particularly in the last couple of years with Mayor and City Council establishing formal goals for our community to be 100% clean electricity by 2035 and then carbon neutral by 2050. And then in addition to those community wide goals, we also have set some specific goals for city government so we can get out in front and lead and take specific actions in our facilities.

PRENTICE: Could you give me a real world example of how my home might be different in 2050?

HUBBLE: Sure. So, the things that we would look for in your home or in a resident's home that might be different between now and 2050 is a home, first of all, that's as energy efficient as possible. The easiest way to get to renewable or clean electricity or energy is to reduce our usage, first of all. So that's certainly a primary focus. From there, we're going to be looking at new technologies, where possible, to try to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. So typically, we've used natural gas for heating. And going forward, what you might see in 2050 is, is a different approach to a heating system than what you've seen historically. Perhaps it's electric or more excitingly perhaps in in Boise, where it's possible would be geothermal. You know, we're blessed with this extraordinary geothermal resource downtown. That's a really special asset for us. So those are some possibilities of how systems might look different in homes. Out to 2050.

PRENTICE: Councilman Steve and his colleagues regularly report to you and the council on how we're doing with this. Do you have a sense of whether we're on track for  this? These goals still seem ambitious.

BAGEANT: These goals are ambitious, but Steve and his team are doing wonderfully with it. It's not the case that this is the kind of thing the city of Boise just goes it alone on or announces. And so, one of the things that Steve and his team are so good at is partnering with other large players in our area. It's so important to remember that the City of Boise is just a city of Boise. It's 250 ish thousand of the 640,000 people who live in the valley. And so, Steve and his team work with Idaho Power. They work with Micron, they work with all of these other large players to come up with ways that are efficient and good for everybody. To help us tie in and meet these goals, there's a lot of work to do and it is a goal. It is a project; it is a timeline that we're going to have to keep sort of relentlessly chipping away at between now and when those when those deadline goals arrive. But we're making progress and we're moving forward. And that really is because of Steve, his team, and all the people that work with him. I mean, they're on this around the clock. It's really impressive.

PRENTICE: I'd like you both to weigh in on this, Councilman, you first. When I read the Boise Climate Adaptation Assessment, a formal assessment conducted by Boise State, the U of I and the Langdon Group, in the category of air quality, we are reminded and I'll read this here: “The odds of very large fires in the Boise Air Shed region is projected to increase by 400% by the mid-21st century.” Indeed, there are some things we don't have much control over. That said, it is our air shed.

BAGEANT: First, that the odds of something increasing by 400% are not necessarily the same as the event increasing by 400%. So, we've got to be thoughtful about the statistics. But the bigger point, which is not unique to Boise, is that wildfires, which are really a weather event, are becoming bigger and more frequent across the American West. And that has fallout implications that are economic, that that are natural resource oriented, that are air quality and health oriented, and that are life safety and property oriented. It's important to not ignore that as we think about planning for environmental quality or air quality or even a clean river, that we recognize that Boise is part of a much larger pattern of increased intensity, duration and frequency of wildfires in the West. And so it's absolutely a factor. We shouldn't be terrified of it. We should be realistic of it about it. It's part of the fabric of this set of issues we're dealing with, and we should face it head on.

HUBBLE: George You know, one of the things that we think about in our climate action initiatives is is tying other benefits. We're not just taking action specifically for climate. We're always trying to bring in co-benefits, whether they be economic, whether they be around health, which is particularly relevant to the air quality conversation. And certainly, you laid out some of the challenges there that we face. We could take a ton of action here in Boise, but because of geography, you know, fires from other states hundreds of miles away could blow in smoke and give us those challenges. But back to those local actions, it's sort of easy to point to the smoke or the inversion. Those are kind of those common things that we all know is air quality. But when you think about it from a climate action perspective, one of the things we're focused on is around electric vehicles. And so right now our combustion engines are all little miniature sources of pollution that drive around the city every day when we can shift those to electric vehicles that are emissions free, we can really start to drive benefits in that day-to-day local air quality. That certainly has an impact and gives us kind of direct control and better outcomes over hopefully other areas and things happen that solve those more regional or larger scale issues. But we certainly want to focus where we can on the things that we can control directly here and produce those health and other co-benefits through our climate action initiatives.

PRENTICE: And speaking of EVs, Councilman, it's difficult to be surprised by anything coming out of DC anymore. But last week, that [climate/tax/healthcare] bill in the US Senate all of a sudden had signs of life again. And indeed, if it makes its way to President Biden's desk, there's a fair amount of money in there for EV incentives… infrastructure… and for individuals, rebates even for buying a used EV  The City is in on EV’s, right?

BAGEANT: Absolutely. We're looking at electrification of our own fleet, both to do our own part and to help demonstrate to the community that that this works and it's viable. And we're looking at electrification of vehicles in any way that we can. You hit the nail on the head, George, when you said it's difficult to be surprised. And so I don't think for planning purposes, the city of Boise bets on anything until the president's desk. Once it goes back out of the Oval Office from the president's desk, then we start leaning and relying on things. But look, if this makes it the rest of the way through Congress and the president signs it, we're going to look as hard as we can to make sure that we get every environmental benefit, every health and safety benefit from this for our people in the city of Boise that we that we possibly can. It's exciting and I hope it happens. But regardless of whether this passes, we're going to continue pushing hard for electrification, like I said, of our own fleets and whatever we can do to help nudge the community in that direction as well.

PRENTICE: Councilman, is there something the city could be doing that it's not doing yet?

BAGEANT: Well, I think, George, by definition that's true, because if that wasn't true, then we'd have nothing left to do.

PRENTICE: But if you had the proverbial magic wand… when it comes to air quality and more livable environment… certainly the way we consume energy…..

BAGEANT: Steve was exactly right. We need to find a viable solution to move our community away from heating with methane, which is really a nice way of saying burning things to stay warm. And when I say a viable way to do that, a way that's responsible in the cost of the consumer and in the impact that it will have over people. This is not a one-day solution. I could wave a wand for 40 years and we might eventually get there. Continuing to push on public transportation, electric public transportation ways to reduce the number of small burning polluters, as Steve described them, required to move people around is a big step in the right direction. And then the third thing I think is continuing to really work hand in hand with the Department of Environmental Quality and with the EPA to stay on top of the things that we don't know yet. We don't even know what's going to be coming out of the tailpipe of cars in 2030 because it's not 2030 yet. So just continuing to be vigilant about staying ahead of issues as they come is, I think, the third leg of the stool.

PRENTICE: Steve Hubble I'm going to guess that you are certainly one of the hardest working people in town, but can I also assume that you've got the best job in town?

HUBBLE: Yeah, it's funny, George. I was out at an event earlier this week and a lady who I had never met before came over and just told me how proud she was of our work and the work that the city was doing. Council Mayor And it just really meant a lot to me to hear from that out of the blue. And I'm often asked by some of my colleagues nationally about the challenges in doing climate work in Idaho, and they're certainly there. But, you know, we have a really supportive and engaged community on this topic. And I think deep down, regardless of whatever our residents background or political thoughts are, they really do care about the environment and this place where we live. We may not all agree on the exact steps to get from point A to point B, but I'm certainly lucky and privileged to get to do this important work for our community. I mean, it really is the most significant issue of our time. And it's very important to me to do good work on it and meet the expectations of the community and our leadership.

PRENTICE: Steve Hubble is the Climate Action Manager for the City of Boise. Patrick Baigent is a Boise City Council member. Any time that we can talk about this topic is time well-spent. So thank you so much for giving us some time.

BAGEANT: Thank you so much, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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