Illustration for article titled Indiana Is About to Bail Out the Coal Industry for Some Reason
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Indiana’s General Assembly fast-tracked a bill on Tuesday that will make it harder to shut down coal-fired power plants. The Indiana bill would delay shutdowns by requiring state officials to review all utilities’ plans for plant closures, hold public hearings, and then issue a report on whether or not the closure is reasonable. It’s now headed to the Republican Governor Eric Holcomb’s desk for final approval, and he’s expected to sign it into law.

The bill is part of a nationwide wave of Republican action to protect the fossil fuel industry. Earlier this month, Republicans on Capitol Hill introduced legislation that purportedly would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but would do basically nothing to wind down the production of dirty energy. At the state level, last week, Republicans Senators fled the Oregon statehouse in order to block cap and trade legislation for the second time in less than a year. And then there’s the Trump administration, which deregulated the industry and is now reportedly weighing a bailout of the fracking industry as oil prices plummet.

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Indiana’s legislation, if passed, would also be the third recently passed bill to subsidize or slow the closure of coal plants specifically, despite the fact that coal increasingly unable to compete financially with other energy sources. Last March, Wyoming passed a law requiring owners of coal-fired power plants to “make a good faith effort” to sell the plants before closing them, leaving it unclear how the plants can be sold if there’s no buyer to be found. And in July, Ohio passed legislation providing subsidies for power plants, including two coal-fired plants.

Technically, the Indiana bill just requires that utilities give advance notice t0 the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission state before they close coal plants. But it’s clear that the legislation aims to slow plans to phase out coal.

“This bill just poses a bunch of hurdles to shutting these plants down,” Wendy Bredhold, a campaign representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told Earther. “It’s a bailout.”

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In the past two years, large utilities across the state have announced plans to stop using thousands of megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity in favor of cheaper fuel from natural gas (bad), but also solar and wind (good). In December, Indianapolis Power and Light, which serves nearly half a million people, announced plans to close two coal plants. And in late 2019, Indiana’s Northern Indiana Public Service Corporation, one of the country’s largest utilities, said it will replace all of its coal power with renewable energy sources by 2028.

As is, the legislation wouldn’t necessarily stop those retirements since it’s only set to be in effect for a year. But its lifespan gives a state task force time to recommend proposals to the 2021 General Assembly session. That task force is chaired by Indiana State Representative Ed Soliday, who also sponsored the bill. Soliday’s allegiance to the coal industry is strong. Last spring, he proposed a moratorium on building new power plants that former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and energy lobbyist Scott Pruitt lobbied for, a move Bredhold says was an attempt to prevent new renewable energy construction. According to state records, Soliday has also accepted thousands of dollars from coal interests since 2017, and we know how that works.

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“We have no idea if the legislation will really go away in a year or what that task force is going to get up to in the meantime under Soliday,” said Bredhold. “I’m certainly suspicious of Soliday’s motivation in heading that task force.”

If the bill does slow utilities’ move away from coal, it’s also likely to lead to higher energy bills. Coal plants are more expensive to run than their natural gas or renewable counterparts, and also have higher maintenance costs. Those costs would likely be passed onto energy consumers. Indiana residents will also be forced to bear the public health impacts of coal burning, and the economic drag that comes with sick days, medical treatments, and ER visits.

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“Where I live in southwest Indiana is where a lot of coal plants are located, and those put the burden of pollution on local communities,” said Bredhold.

Her town, Evansville, sits within 30 miles of seven coal-fired power plants, four of which are called “super polluters” because they generate inordinate amounts of particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and other toxins that can cause cancer. Indiana is home to more super polluters than any other state. Many state coal plants have had EPA air quality violations, and many are located in or near communities of color.

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The carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases that these coal plants produce also warm the climate. In recent years, the climate crisis has caused major flooding in Indiana. If the world takes little action on climate by following in the footsteps of Indiana’s legislators, the state could see the number of days where the heat index rises above the dangerous threshold of 105 degrees Fahrenheit increase from one per year today to 18 by midcentury.

“Indiana’s transition away from coal to clean energy would help prevent some impact of the climate crisis when we’re already seeing those impacts,” said Bredhold. “It’s so important not to slow that transition down, so we’re going to do whatever we can to fight.”

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Staff writer, Earther

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