Commentary

LEAP, carbon projects require Hoosiers to trust their government

October 13, 2023 7:00 am

The Indiana Statehouse on Thursday, May 25, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Whether it’s putting carbon dioxide into the ground or taking water out, these two examples of residents bucking government action have the same thing in common: trust.

Or, actually, a lack of trust.

Hoosiers simply don’t believe their government anymore. And this isn’t exclusive to Indiana — it’s part of a nationwide decline in trust.

A Pew Research Center finding shows public faith in the federal government has returned to near-record lows following a modest uptick in 2020 and 2021. Now, fewer than two in 10 Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” (1%) or “most of the time” (15%).

This is among the lowest trust measures in nearly seven decades of polling — last year, 20% said they trusted the government just about always or most of the time.

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I couldn’t find a solid poll for trust in local government. It is likely better, though not great.

So, when controversial economic development projects come up and governments give them the green light — with tax incentives or statements of grandeur — citizens question them.

But let’s be clear. I get tired of residents opposing every little thing: the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon is strong in Indiana.

Residents fight against transitional housing, convenience stores, big box stores, jails and more. And it’s usually all about property values, though sometimes it is discriminatory, as well.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore residents who have legitimates questions and concerns about larger, transformational endeavors that threaten health, environment and resources.

There are two such ongoing Indiana projects that deserve a second look.

  • The first is the LEAP Lebanon Innovation District. It’s a massive high-tech park planned in Boone County, for which the state is using taxpayer dollars to buy up thousands of acres of land. I live in Lebanon — though not anywhere close to the district — and that part was controversial enough. Then word leaked that state officials hope to pipe 100 million gallons of water daily 35 miles from a Lafayette area aquifer to the innovation district. Wabash-reliant residents fear the proposal could jeopardize their water supply. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation hasn’t been the most transparent on the project, though they are improving. But a recent study it commissioned on the plan isn’t allaying fears.
  • The second is a carbon sequestration project in Vigo County. Wabash Valley Resources intends to liquify, pipe and inject 1.67 million tons of carbon dioxide annually a mile below the area’s surface as part of its plan to produce “green” anhydrous ammonia fertilizer at a former coal gasification plant. But Vigo and Vermillion County residents near the injection sites fear potential consequences like pipe ruptures and water contamination. They’re skeptical of the company’s intentions — and its use of public incentives.

In these two cases, I absolutely get the fear and concerns.

I think the concerns about depleting water resources are fair and shouldn’t be cast aside. And can you imagine knowing carbon dioxide would be sloshing through high-pressure pipes by your home or farmland, or stored directly underneath it? That doesn’t happen every day, folks.

In the former, the state’s study is criticized because it’s state-paid by hand-picked consultants. My hope is local officials can fund a second analysis, or maybe experts at Indiana’s many higher education institutions can assess the data and results and give their own unbiased opinions. And even if there is enough water, what about Tippecanoe County’s ability to use that abundant resource to attract its own growth?

The carbon project is likely beyond mitigation. State and national officials are on board with tens of millions in tax incentives. And honestly, they have accepted the company line pretty easily over the years. The company line might be right, by the way, but it doesn’t look good when officials are taking political donations from the company as well.

In the future, I hope lawmakers and economic development leaders can learn some lessons from these projects: be transparent and upfront immediately; listen to the concerns and imagine how you would feel in their place; work with residents to find ways to garner their support.

That’s how you gain trust.

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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.

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