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Uphill battle ahead: State poses tough test for new enviro leader

February 11, 2008

By the time Jesse Kharbanda earned a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, the University of Chicago student already knew he wanted to advocate environmental policies in the developing world, someday.

Eight years later, some might say Kharbanda has landed in the developing world, all right-Indiana, insofar as it's considered the backwater of environmental stewardship.

One might recall the state's 49thplace ranking in a 2007 review of "greenest" states by Forbes magazine. Only West Virginia-a national leader in illiteracy-scored worse.

"Indiana, as is abundantly known, has a very poor ranking in terms of its environmental quality," said Kharbanda, the new executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. The 25-year-old HEC is Indiana's largest statewide environmental organization.

"I couldn't pass on the chance to try to build a model for environmental advocacy I thought could work in Indiana," Kharbanda said.

Boosting visibility

Kharbanda, 30, is a big catch for HEC. He's spent the last several years at Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, a much larger regional environmental organization.

He wants to boost the visibility of HEC, build a stronger coalition among legislators and policymakers, and do a better job of rallying public participation in matters of environmental importance.

Key to that was the recent gutting and redesign of HEC's Web site. Ideally, it will serve as the leading clearinghouse for environmental issues involving Indiana, he said.

"We've been told that, 'Hey, we need to hear from the HEC and what their position is,'" he said. "We have to be a bigger presence. It's just a matter of making ourselves known."

Meanwhile, Kharbanda is also busy contemplating private briefings with decision makers.

He wants to get legislators from both sides of the political aisle on board environmental issues.

"He is unconstrained by traditional alliances," said Barry Matchett, co-legislative director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Dancing to a new tune

Kharbanda is of the mind-set of a newer generation of environmentalists who see environmental issues not as something to be compartmentalized, but as integral to the interests of a broad base, from manufacturers to utility ratepayers.

He's soft-spoken, with a personality that can disarm opponents expecting the unyielding dogmatism of an environmentalist pit bull. Single, he goes salsa and swing dancing in his spare time and is taking piano and guitar lessons.

Kharbanda dances to a different tune than some in the environmental movement-preferring to find a solution that works for numerous parties involved on an issue, said Matchett, who attended the University of Chicago with Kharbanda. There, both got a dose of "free-market-oriented" education.

Kharbanda and Matchett learned to be mindful of seeing the value of clean air to business-an essential skill in helping industry sign on to environmental initiatives.

Kharbanda said he's bullish on the economic development potential in Indiana from, for example, manufacturing wind turbines and other types of renewableenergy and energy-efficiency devices.

"You wind up with the business community being able to make a profit and being clean," Matchett added.

Kharbanda earned degrees in development economics from the University of Oxford and economics and environmental studies from the University of Chicago. He doesn't think being pro-environment necessarily means being anti-business.

"I think the perception in Indiana is that environmentalists are just about saying 'no,'" he said.

On the other hand he wants HEC's constituents to know he isn't backing down.

"While I do intend to bring what I consider a 'revitalized approach' to environmental advocacy, I also intend to be true to our organization's mission. That may lead HEC to take unpopular positions, but I think the stakes are too high for Indiana, in terms of public health, economic wellbeing, and moral responsibility to do otherwise."

Kharbanda was a key team member on the Environmental Law & Policy Center's farm bill team in helping press Congress to provide grants and loan guarantees for farmers investing in renewable energy such as wind turbines. Working with congressmen including Richard Lugar, RIndiana, and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Kharbanda helped write some of the language later adopted.

"He's a fantastic thinker and a very smart policymaker," Matchett said.

And while he's concerned that the furious expansion of corn-growing for ethanol production is a "chemically intensive" process that puts pesticides and fertilizers into waterways, he'd like to see growers making money planting switchgrass, instead.

Such grasses grow like gangbusters without much chemical intervention and could yield growers big bucks. That is, at least as soon as researchers come up with an enzyme that breaks down grass into alcohol as efficiently as can be done with the corn kernels.

"Indiana is a prime state for cellulosic ethanol," Kharbanda said. "How do you move the biofuels sector to a more sustainable model?"

On such topics as renewable energy, "it's a question of a lack of vision, a lack of foresight," said Kharbanda, who favors a "sensible, evidence-based approach."

A tough task

Of course, as veterans of environmental advocacy in Indiana can attest, all the intelligent reasoning and reams of data in the world often take a back seat in the Indiana General Assembly.

HEC and Indianapolis-based Citizens Action Coalition are still licking their wounds from the defeat late last month of two bills that would've required electric utilities to deliver a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind.

The measures backed by the advocacy groups were proposed in anticipation of rising electric use and federal restrictions on carbon dioxide, which is thought to contribute to global warming.

Kharbanda said he has "almost a sense that the views of the electric utilities are paramount in Indiana."

Missing an opportunity

Shortly after the House voted down the renewable energy bill, Kharbanda was quick to point out the lost economic possibilities.

"Today was a golden opportunity for Indiana to send a strong signal to investors outside of Indiana, and to budding entrepreneurs in-state that Indiana is open for a new type of business, a business that anticipates the dramatically different energy future ahead," he said after the defeat of House Bill 1102.

"Sadly, that welcome message was not sent, and that is a missed opportunity for our state's environment and our economy. We intend to let the public know how ... legislators voted on this critical bill."

In a press release he named names, while praising backers Rep. Dave Crooks, D-Washington; Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend; and Sandra Blanton, D-Orleans.

Grant Smith, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition, said Kharbanda is an intelligent guy to whom he wishes the best of luck in getting through to lawmakers he considers beholden to corporations.

"Those guys are lapdogs down there," Smith said.

CAC shares interest with HEC in a number of environmental issues regarding utility companies.

He and Kharbanda face a tough task because any type of 21st century economic development-such as renewable energy-is clashing with "entrenched interests that make money off of 20th century technology," Smith said, referring to coal-powered electric utilities.

Those utilities "are racing against time" before renewables become tantalizingly more cost-effective and before federal carbon regulations land on the industry like a ton of coal, he said.

Even though coal-fired generation projects were canceled in a dozen states last year, Duke Energy shrugged off vociferous opposition brought by HEC and CAC and other groups to its plans to build a $1 billion coal gasification plant in Edwardsport.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approved Duke's permit, although the CAC and other groups are appealing.

Smith said utilities like Duke are scrambling to start construction on new coal plants with hopes of getting Congress to grandfather them from tougher new environmental regulations to come.

Moreover, utilities are trying to get more money from ratepayers to deal with future regulatory burdens such as the capture and sequestering of carbon-thereby protecting profits.

For example, Senate Bill 224 would allow utilities to recover from ratepayers their research and development costs for carbon.

Getting the word out

It is in building public awareness that Kharbanda and other environmental advocates might ultimately win the fight, Smith said.

"You're not going to finesse this. It's going to take a lot of public education" about costs to ratepayers, he said.

As with property tax outrage that helped defeat Mayor Bart Peterson, "that's what you need on the energy side-people saying enough is enough," Smith said.

As of IBJ deadline, there were still some signs HEC and other green groups might prevail on other environmental legislation.

Still advancing was House Bill 1090, by Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, that would require Indiana to become a member of the Climate Registry, a collaboration of 39 states and Canadian provinces to develop a common greenhouse-gas reporting system. Membership could give the state more say in policymaking.

Also still alive was HB 1280, which would require that large public buildings-except for schools-meet the silver rating for energy efficiency of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Kharbanda was asked to apply for the Indiana job that had been vacated last summer by now-HEC Policy Director Tim Maloney.

Matchett said Kharbanda is a natural fit because he'd been the Environmental Law & Policy Center's contact with the state, through the Indiana Coalition for Renewable Energy and Economic Development.
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