Per capita pollution in Idaho is among the lowest in the country. That’s the good news. 

Unfortunately, the unique topography of the Treasure Valley area—deep valleys and high peaks—traps pollution on the valley floor at uniquely high levels. Cold temperatures compound the effects of emissions during winter, creating a potentially harmful health environment. As the population of the Boise metropolitan area continues to grow—rising nearly 2 percent per year—the issue of pollution will become worse.

There is one significant—and proportionally inexpensive—solution that could dramatically improve Idaho’s overall air quality: Tier 3 automobiles and Tier 3 fuel.  Fueled by Tier 3 gasoline, Tier 3 motor vehicles produce a whopping 80 percent less pollution than traditional cars.  Currently, motor vehicles generate roughly half of the state’s pollution. To put it in perspective, the other half of the state’s pollution is generated collectively by everything else – factories, farming, construction, industry and households. If all cars on Idaho’s roads were Tier 3 vehicles (fueled with Tier 3 gasoline), per capita pollution would decrease by 40 percent.  Such a transition would reduce pollution levels equivalent to removing four out of every five vehicles on the road today. 

No other single initiative can reduce air pollution in Idaho so drastically and at such a low cost. Even without Tier 3 vehicles, simply refueling traditional automobiles with Tier 3 gasoline would significantly reduce harmful emissions. 

What’s the catch?  Surprisingly, not much.  A wide variety of Tier 3-equivalent vehicles are available today in other parts of the country, often in the exact makes and models sold at new car dealerships throughout Idaho.  Tier 3 cars have two main differences from traditional cars: their catalytic converters are approximately $87 more expensive and their fuel typically costs $0.01–$0.04 more per gallon.  Tier 3 cars are otherwise equivalent in price and performance with traditional vehicles.

In the future, the EPA will require new cars to meet Tier 3 standards: by 2025, the entire fleet of cars sold in Idaho will need to be Tier 3 compliant.  Refineries across the country are studying options, and some are already implementing the elements necessary to produce Tier 3 fuels; although when they will ultimately transition to Tier 3 fuels is still unknown. 

Given the unique topography and growing population of Idaho’s metropolitan areas, we can’t upgrade to Tier 3 cars and fuels soon enough. At this point, however, Tier 3 vehicles aren’t available in Idaho.  And even if invested residents were to buy Tier 3 vehicles from out of state, they would need access to Tier 3 fuels to maximize air quality improvement.

Idaho’s private sector has the opportunity to lead the way toward real change.  What if even just one Idaho-based automobile dealership and one local gasoline retail chain opted to champion air quality by selling Tier 3 automobiles and fuel?  These companies would immediately differentiate themselves to a substantial audience, and provide a convenient, high-impact avenue for Idaho residents to act on their commitment to air quality. 

By introducing viable Tier 3 vehicles and fuel this year, these companies would jumpstart air quality improvement years in advance of federal regulation requirements.  Along with burnishing these companies’ reputations, such a proactive decision would establish the Gem State’s commitment to green innovation.