Five environmental issues to watch for in Indiana’s 2023 legislative session

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Renewable energy, climate change mitigation and ongoing efforts to improve statewide water quality are top issues for Indiana environmental advocates in the 2023 legislative session.

Bills already filed by state lawmakers involve local water infrastructure, biofuel tax credits, confined feeding operations and solar panels.

More bills will be filed this week. Language addressing other environmental issues could also be inserted into separate pieces of draft legislation later in the session.

The Hoosier Environmental Council is lobbying for lawmakers to pass measures that would  improve state oversight of coal ash disposal sites, create new tax credits for wetland protection, and require child care centers to test their drinking water for lead.

The HEC also wants legislation requiring Indiana to adopt a state climate action plan, as well as increased funding for conservation, wetlands protections and environmental health in the next two-year state budget.

Other groups, like the Citizens Action Coalition and the Sierra Club’s Hoosier Chapter, haven’t yet released their legislative priorities but are expected to in the coming days and weeks.

Here are five environmental issues to watch in the legislature as the next session gets underway.

Statewide energy and climate action plans

Among the Indiana Chamber’s key legislative issues is the development of a statewide energy plan. The 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force that was created by the Indiana General Assembly and has met for the last four years to discuss various energy topics.

Now, the Indiana Chamber says “it’s time to take action,” urging the state to develop an energy plan that will “enable the managed transition to reliance upon a more diverse group of energy sources,” including clean coal, natural gas, nuclear, renewables, storage, biomass and North American petroleum.

The HEC is additionally calling for legislation to require Indiana to adopt a state climate action plan. More than half of U.S. states have already adopted such frameworks. Some Indiana cities—including Indianapolis, Bloomington, Richmond and Goshen—have created their own plans, too.

Coal ash disposal

Bills addressing coal ash disposal are expected to remerge this session after similar measures failed in 2022.

Coal ash—the material left after burning coal—contains heavy metals that contaminate water. For decades, Indiana has been producing millions of tons of coal ash, much of which is stored in the floodplains of rivers or Lake Michigan, according to the HEC.

Two state bills that would have directed the cleanup of toxic, leaking coal ash pits across the state failed in the last session, both dying in committees.

The HEC expects new coal ash bills will continue to be opposed by the electric utilities, but noted that federal regulations and liability risks should make utilities more amenable to such legislation.

Renewable energy

Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, has already filed a bill calling for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to conduct a joint study concerning decommissioning and disposal of solar panels.

Solar panels and electronic waste that have reached the end of their service life are mostly shredded and tossed into landfills where they can release toxic materials into the surrounding environment.

The study would look for ways for the state to pay for the decommissioning and disposal of solar panels in Indiana, and to identify more efficient means for recycling or disposing of those materials. The bill would require the agencies to report findings and recommendations no later than Nov. 1.

The HEC is additionally seeking legislation that would enable local governments, business and nonprofits to build community solar projects — like solar farms. In Indiana, especially in rural regions, disagreements among local government units, utilities and residents have largely prevented that kind of development.

After carbon sequestration became a contested topic in the 2022 session, Indiana Farm Bureau said it’s now lobbying to protect landowner subsurface property rights.

“We’re going to potentially be playing defense on a couple different energy topics this year,” said Jeff Cummins, INFB director of state government, adding that wetlands and drainage are also INFB interests this session, as are wind and solar power.

The HEC opposes legislation that hinders renewable energy deployment or that mandates electric utilities to continue burning coal, however.

Local water infrastructure

A bill to establish a local unit water infrastructure fund has also been introduced by Rep. Randall Frye, R-Lake Forest.

The fund would be administered by the Indiana Finance Authority, which already oversees funding for Hoosier water projects and other infrastructure projects. Communities around Indiana are already asking for more than $2 billion from the State Revolving Fund Program for water infrastructure projects.

Grants, loans and other financial assistance would be available to repair, replace or increase water infrastructure and lead service lines. At least half of the total amount of grants in the fund would be required to go to counties, cities and towns with less than 50,000 residents, according to the bill.

Indiana needs to spend roughly $2.3 billion to repair and replace aged service lines around the state, according to a 2016 IFA state audit. The report noted that another $815 million will also be needed annually to maintain the new utilities.

Environmental spending in the next budget

State lawmakers haven’t yet made clear what—if any—environmental issues will be priorities in the upcoming session. Although federal dollars aimed at infrastructure could help clean up coal ash and boost protections for wetlands, key budget writers have expressed hesitancy about new state spending in the next budget, citing inflation and concerns about recession.

Still, the HEC said it supports “a robust increase” in state investment in land, water and wildlife conservation, as well as additional funding for trails and greenways across the state, and for Indiana’s 63 local public transit systems.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2023 agenda also gives a nod to several environmental issues, including a request for $50 million to be appropriated for the state’s existing trail program and $25 million for land conservation efforts.

Larry Clemens, state director of the Indiana Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said in a statement that the governor’s land conservation proposal is the most significant commitment of state funding in 30 years.

“At a time when our legislators are considering important issues like education, economic development and Hoosiers’ overall well-being, it’s important to recognize the role nature plays in all of these aspects of life,” Clemens said. “Gov. Holcomb’s proposed investment in natural Indiana bolsters all the other important programs the state will undertake in the next budget.”

The Republican governor hasn’t yet made clear his support for other environmental action items but has signaled support for increased state spending on numerous other fronts, including education, public health and law enforcement.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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