Environmentalists, utilities at odds over coal plant protections

Amendment adopted Tuesday overshadowed bill overhauling agency rule-making processes

By: - February 15, 2023 6:30 am

A barge loaded with Illinois Basin coal sits in the Ohio River. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A House committee on Tuesday advanced an overhaul of the process that state agencies use to create regulations — including some changes benefiting coal plants.

The GOP-dominated committee easily approved an amendment blocking the Indiana Department of Environmental Management from imposing regulations on all coal-powered electricity generators that are stricter than federal requirements. 

“This language tells locals that essentially they’re unable to determine what’s best for them at home” by relying on federal rules, said Lindsay Haake, speaking on behalf of Citizens Action Coalition — a utility customer advocate group.

The Indiana Energy Association and other industry representatives spoke in support.

The change would also block stricter requirements for certain “legacy” generators disposing of toxic coal combustion residuals. Legacy generator owners must have been formed to power the federal government’s defense efforts. Just one exists in Indiana: the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation’s Clifty Creek facility.

That facility “is caught in the middle of trying to comply with two different permit processes: the state and the federal regulations,” author Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty, told the committee. “This asset needs a clear understanding of which permit standards they need to follow, as they’ve already started.”

A Clifty Creek representative said that after several years and millions of dollars, the facility was on track to comply with the federal requirements, but higher state standards could threaten those efforts. 

Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie. (Courtesy Indiana House Republicans)

House Bill 1623 also lays out standardized fiscal analysis, public comment, expiration, re-adoption and other requirements for agencies to use in making regulations. It would phase out conventional rules after five instead of seven years, forcing agencies to appear before lawmakers more often. 

The bill would also require pre-approval from the governor for emergency and interim rules, and let both the governor and attorney general overturn some rules.

By nature, the specifics in agency regulations go beyond the broad contours of the laws that legislators write – and some want to keep agencies in line. They say agencies have deliberately gone against the General Assembly’s intent, while opponents argue subject matter experts should hold more sway than politicians.

Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, defended the bill, saying it would give the General Assembly and the public more opportunities to weigh in on rules, and update them “sooner.”

Shannon Anderson of Earth Charter Indiana said she believed agencies had the tools to update rules themselves, and that the bill would simply mean “defending” those rules more often. 

“Why do you think they need to defend their rules from us?” Pressel asked. “That’s kind of strange.”

“You base your decisions, sometimes, on values,” Anderson said. “They’re scientists and they base their decisions on data-driven things.”

The bill passed out of committee 9-1. It now heads to the House floor for potential amendments.


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie joins the Indiana Capital Chronicle after covering city government and urban affairs for the Indianapolis Business Journal for more than a year. She graduated from Northwestern University in March 2021, and has reported for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and student publications in Evanston, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar.