Originally published on February 5, 2021 in Indiana Environmental Reporter
 

A bill that takes away local governments’ power to choose utilities generated without fossil fuels and that places multiple barriers for state universities to choose how they acquire their power sources is making its way through the Indiana legislature.

House Bill 1191, authored by Rep. Jim Pressel and passed by the Indiana House of Representatives by a wide margin, seeks to remove the power of local governments to place restrictions on public utilities based on the energy source of their services. 

The bill would make it against the law for towns, cities and counties to decide to reduce the climate change impacts of local public utilities by moving away from greenhouse gas-emitting sources, like coal-fired generation or methane-laden natural gas. 

HB1191 would also severely restrict the ability of state universities, who supply much of the knowledge behind climate change efforts in Indiana, from making energy source-based decisions on their own campus, like choosing carbon-friendly energy sources for buildings or vehicle fleets. 

Pressel said the bill was intended to prevent Indiana towns from imposing restrictions on natural gas like cities in California and other states have. 

“I think it’s very unfair to our constituents, any of them, to take away any source of energy that is currently, during a pandemic, the cheapest and most affordable way to heat your house,” Pressel said before the Indiana House of Representatives voted on the bill. “So, do we want local units of government potentially, and I stress potentially, to take that away from them when things could be so bad for them now? And that’s why I think this is a great piece of legislation.”

NATURAL GAS

Natural gas is the second most widely used energy source in Indiana, behind only coal.

Natural gas use in Indiana has been on the rise since 2009, jumping from about 507 billion cubic feet used in 2009 to 894 billion cubic feet in 2019.

Most of the natural gas used in the state is not used to power homes, but businesses. Only about 16% of the natural gas used in the state was for residential use.

U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates indicate that the average annual cost of natural gas for Indiana residential customers is about $750 less than electricity.

But the cheaper power costs Hoosiers in other ways, like increased health and pollution risks.

Studies have found that gas appliances emit a wide range of toxic pollutants, like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and formaldehyde. All have been linked to health effects like respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease and premature death.

A single hour of cooking simultaneously with both the gas stove and oven raised the indoor nitrous oxide levels beyond federal air quality thresholds in homes, according to a UCLA study.

Natural gas electricity generation emits much less carbon dioxide than a coal-fired generation, leading to the energy source being branding as a “bridge fuel.”

But natural gas still accounts for massive amounts of another greenhouse gas, methane, a greenhouse gas that is dozens of times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

That’s because natural gas is mostly methane with smaller amounts of hydrocarbon gas liquids like propane and butane. Methane makes up about 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The gas is estimated to have 25 times the comparative impact on global warming than carbon dioxide.

Coal-fired electricity generation emits about 40% more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural gas generation, but the extraction and transportation of natural gas emits an untold amount of methane.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1% and 4% of all-natural gas emitted from underground wells escapes into the atmosphere. Methane also leaks when natural gas is transported and flared, adding to the methane that is burned to create the steam for electricity generation.

OUTLAWING CITIES’ CALLS FOR ACTION

Dozens of Indiana cities, like IndianapolisBloomingtonWest Lafayette and Goshen have created climate action plans to reduce their impact on climate change. None of the plans calls for banning energy sources, but most seek to eventually transition away from fossil fuels.

Pressel’s bill would essentially outlaw those attempts.

“[HB 1191] prohibits a local unit of government from prohibiting any particular type of energy source. Natural gas, thermal energy, LP gas, when it comes to heating, fueling, electrifying. It just says that all options are open. If those options are available today, a local unit should not have the ability to prohibit that,” he said.

The bill also takes away the ability of cities to require the installation of energy-saving or energy-producing components.

Advocacy groups like the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Citizens Action Coalition have spoken out against the bill for limiting what local government can decide to do for itself.

"Our cities and counties should have the right to be more protective of the health of their citizens than the state or federal government. This bill would strip local governments of their ability to prohibit any type of energy resources, connected to their electric or gas utility, in their boundaries — including resources that the local government might deem could be unhealthy for their citizens,” Hoosier Environmental Council executive director Jesse Kharbanda said in a written statement. 

STALLING STATE UNIVERSITIES

Besides local governments, HB 1191 also limits how state-funded universities can plan their energy futures.

Ball State UniversityIndiana University BloomingtonIndiana University Purdue University IndianapolisPurdue University and other state-funded universities have produced plans to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Some have the ultimate goal of achieving net-zero emissions.

Most of those efforts, like those of Indiana’s city climate plans, include phasing out fossil fuel emissions.

Pressel’s bill would allow the universities to pursue those goals, but with strict stipulations. 

State-funded universities can prohibit or restrict energy sources if the change would result in monetary savings, or if it is “in furtherance of an established academic discipline.” The bill also disallows the schools from retrofitting buildings with energy-saving or energy-producing components unless the cost of the project can be recouped within 10 years of the installation, and bans them from establishing any preference or prohibition on motor vehicles based on the type of energy that powers the vehicle.

Pressel said that that portion of the bill was intended to protect taxpayer dollars. Kharbanda believes the bill will serve to stifle the state’s burgeoning climate change efforts. 

“HB 1191 would make it needlessly more difficult for both local governments and state-funded universities to pursue sustainable energy initiatives tailored to their needs and tailored to the wishes of their constituents; these specific provisions will impede innovation and discourage civic engagement in both our cities and on our state university campuses when it comes to addressing environmental and climate challenges,” Kharbanda said.

IU representatives told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that they were working with lawmakers to address the bill.

“A BILL SEARCHING FOR A PROBLEM TO SOLVE”

Rep. Matt Pierce, an opponent of the bill since its introduction, said the bill was “searching for a problem to solve.”

“I think that rather than create this additional bureaucracy, additional cost for higher education institutions and tying the hands of local units of government when there’s no problem demonstrated here, it makes sense to just defeat this bill,” Pierce said. 

Pressel admitted the bill was flawed, but still encouraged its passing.

“There are some things in 1191 that need to be addressed, and they will be addressed. You have my commitment on that, moving forward into the Senate bill. Particularly with the higher education piece, and I’ve tried to work with Purdue, IU. I’ve had those conversations and I appreciate the feedback, because the last thing I want to do is put out a bad piece of energy policy,” he said.

Pressel’s election campaign received thousands of dollars in contributions from the energy industry in 2020, including natural gas energy suppliers like American Electric Power, NiSource, Inc., CenterPoint Energy, Duke Energy and the Indiana Electric Cooperative. 

The bill’s co-authors, Rep. Ethan Manning and Rep. Ed Soliday, chair of the House Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications Committee, were also strongly funded by fossil fuel concerns.

The bill will now head to the Indiana Senate for consideration, where it was sponsored by Sen. Eric Koch and Sen. Mike Bohacek.