- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - In the first stop on a three-city Western tour, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday touted a Salt Lake City initiative that encourages businesses to be more energy efficient.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the program targeting large buildings fits nicely within the agency’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution.

“This program recognizes that air quality, carbon pollution and energy efficiency are really all linked together,” said McCarthy, speaking at news conference held on the rooftop of the city library with the snow-capped mountains behind her. “They are all part of the same puzzle.”

McCarthy will be in Seattle on Thursday and Portland, Oregon, on Friday. She is meeting with local leaders and business representatives in the three cities to generate support for President Barack Obama’s climate-change plan. An announcement is expected June 2 for new rules for existing power plants.

McCarthy and other speakers said making buildings more energy efficient not only improves the economy but saves businesses money in the long term. They also touted it as way to attract more companies and jobs to the region.

“Environmental health promotes economic health,” McCarthy said. “Efficiency isn’t just good for our health and our pocketbooks, it also cuts carbon pollution that is fueling climate change.”

She said the average building wastes 30 percent of the energy it uses because of inefficiencies. The EPA has a voluntary program, called Energy Star, that labels products, buildings and homes as energy efficient to reduce pollution.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ralph Becker said vehicles aren’t the only cause of poor air quality. He said unnecessary energy consumption in buildings contributes to the region’s notoriously murky winter air.

Becker’s program features a friendly competition between businesses to improve their energy efficiency with steps such as upgrading lighting, setting energy use goals and installing automated systems to track usage. The initiative targets buildings that are 25,000 square feet or larger, such as hospitals and schools. He said businesses will find reduced utility bills and improved work environments for its workers.

Jeff Edwards, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, said improving air quality has a direct impact on attracting top companies and talented professionals. He recalled a company visiting Salt Lake City in January one recent year and cutting their visit short because they said they would not relocate to a city with such bad air.

“If we want to continue to attract new companies to our state, we’ve got to take air quality head on,” Edwards said.

McCarthy said programs like the one Salt Lake City, even though voluntary, can have a big impact. Similar initiatives in other cities have had big success, she said.

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