Even in a favorable political climate, getting environmental legislation through the Indiana Statehouse can be like paddling a canoe upstream during a flash flood.
Indiana ranks fourth in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Toxic 20” list of states in emission from coal-fired power plants. It’s ranked high in toxic discharges into waterways. And among “greenest states,” Indiana often places among bottom dwellers the likes of Mississippi and West Virginia.
Prospects for the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly appear even more daunting, with a post-election balance that enhances Republican control of the Legislature and maintains the Governor’s Office, with the election of Mike Pence.
While last year’s focus was right-to-work legislation, leaders this year have signaled the priority will be on jobs, education and a state budget.
Still, “there are opportunities, if elected officials keep an open mind,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the state’s largest environmental group.
By open mind, Kharbanda is hoping leaders will latch onto ways to improve the environment that also present economic development opportunities. It’s a strategy HEC has tried in previous sessions with limited success.
The linking of the environment and the economy could be more difficult this time around. Still pungent are the smoldering ashes of taxpayer incentives the Obama administration relished on green companies such as Solyndra that failed spectacularly soon after.
Moreover, industries such as coal mining, oil and gas, and electric utilities are fuming over EPA regulations and Obama policies that have cost jobs in the name of environmental progress.
“It’s our hope the Legislature resists some of the polarizing rhetoric on the federal level regarding environmental policy here at home,” Kharbanda said.
If anything, some of HEC’s legislative priorities are aimed at protecting industries in the state, such as the $2.2 billion recreation industry.
That includes activities such as boating and fishing on the state’s major lakes, which increasingly have had problems with blue-green algae. Blamed is phosphorous in lawn fertilizer that runs off into waterways. It depletes oxygen and harms fish, and creates health risks to swimmers and animals.
“Whatever part of the state you’re in, blue-green algae has hurt recreation,” Kharbanda said.
HEC wants legislation requiring that stores inform consumers buying fertilizer about the risks of phosphorous and ways to reduce runoff.
This year, HEC will again throw its support behind a transit bill that would allow residents in Marion and Hamilton counties to vote on whether to approve a tax to fund bus rapid-transit routes and a commuter rail line to Noblesville.
The measure failed to advance out of committee last year despite proponents’ assurance the proposed $1.3 billion project would spur economic development. Recently, State Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said he would carry a transit bill.
Some advances in the environmental agenda have been made in spite of the General Assembly, programs HEC will be watching to make sure lawmakers don’t defang them.
One is rule-making under way at the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to require electric utilities to do a better job planning for how much generating capacity they’ll need in the future.
This time, the commission wants utilities not only to seek the least-cost method of generation, but to consider more carefully the potential for energy-efficiency measures to reduce the need for new capacity.
Utilities would also be required to do a better job of anticipating risk facing future generating plants. That’s been underscored by the changing economics of coal. It will be more expensive as new environmental laws take effect in future years. Meanwhile, the relative price of natural gas as a generation fuel is falling.
Kharbanda said the commission’s proposed new rule would give community leaders and the public more input and bring more transparency in the utilities’ planning process.
Kerwin Olson, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition, said he doesn’t think utilities will go after the proposed new rule in the Legislature because the IURC “wants this new rule badly.” He pointed to Duke Energy’s $3 billion Edwardsport coal gasification plant, which is running $1 billion over original projections.
Meanwhile, Kharbanda hopes for a retry in the Legislature of a bill that would create so-called Property Assessed Clean Energy Districts, or PACE.
A PACE would allow municipalities, upon request, to place a special levy on a property, with proceeds used to pay for clean-energy improvements on the property, such as solar panels.•