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Justices weigh contract dispute in $2.7 billion Rockport coal-to-gas plan

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A controversial, politically charged power plant proposal voided by an appellate court and later waylaid by the General Assembly and Gov. Mike Pence landed before the Indiana Supreme Court Thursday. Attorneys for and against the proposed plant pleaded that terms of the contract were on their side.

At issue is a contract pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and approved under his watch by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission that would have guaranteed the sale and purchase of substitute natural gas to fund construction of a $2.7 billion coal gasification plant in Rockport, a town along the Ohio River in southwest Indiana.

Opponents argue the proposal is an unproven, environmentally harmful design and an example of crony capitalism that would saddle utility ratepayers with a 30-year contract to buy gas at rates upwards of double the current market price. Supporters say the plant would be a cutting-edge, clean-coal facility, diversifying the state’s energy supply that would drive economic development and that the contract has safeguards for consumers.

A divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the IURC’s green light and voided the entire contract because its definition of “retail end user” differed from the statutory definition. Chief Judge Margret Robb dissented, finding IURC’s approval could be affirmed by simply excluding the offending section of the contract.

After the COA ruling, lawmakers dealt a blow to the proposal, passing Senate Enrolled Act 494 that deferred to the Supreme Court and likely set the stage for a new round of regulatory review if the contract is affirmed by the court. Plant backers responded to Pence’s signing of the bill by suspending work on the plant.

The matter made national headlines last month when Justice Mark Massa refused to recuse himself  due to what plant opponents argue is conflict of interest. His 27-year relationship with project manager Mark Lubbers, a former adviser to Daniels who recruited Massa to state government and spoke at Massa’s robing ceremony after Daniels appointed him to the bench, was cited.

An unlikely coalition of utilities, environmental and consumer groups oppose the proposal backed by Indiana Gasification, and its parent company, Leucadia National Corp. The case is Indiana Gas Company, Inc. v. Indiana Finance Authority, 93S02-1306-EX-407.

Norman Funk of Krieg DeVault LLP argued on behalf of utilities including Vectren, Ohio Valley Gas Inc. and Sycamore Gas. Funk said the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled correctly, citing a term of the contract that allowed it to be voided entirely if any provision was invalidated.

But parties to the contract amended it to comply with statute after the Court of Appeals ruling, and Chief Justice Brent Dickson pressed Funk on why such an action would not render the case moot.

“Certainly an amended provision cannot trump the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission’s jurisdiction,” Funk said. “This is a regulated contract.”

Funk also warned that justices should be wary of Robb’s dissent. He said the cases she cited were inapposite because they didn’t concern contracts that required state agency approval or contained clauses like those in this case. He said the court was not at liberty to “blue-line” a contract that required approval from a state regulatory agency.

“We believe it would be a usurpation and a violation of separation of powers,” Funk said, “for this court to tell the (IURC) what it must do.” Allowing an amended contract to stand without required agency approval, he said, would mark the court “wading into new constitutional waters.”

But attorney Karl Mulvaney of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP argued that another provision of the contract gives signers ultimate authority over its provisions. “The parties to the contract can enter into an amendment,” said Mulvaney, representing plant backers Indiana Gasification and the Indiana Finance Authority. He likened the contract to that of a real-estate purchase.

“We really believe we have an absolute right to amend this contract,” Mulvaney said.
He said the justices should affirm the contract as amended.

When Justice Loretta Rush pressed Mulvaney on whether he was “asking us to do something contrary to the statute,” she asked what his fallback position was. Mulvaney said the court could affirm the 2011 contract as approved by the IURC “and you don’t say anything about the amendment.”

Mulvaney opened his argument by saying he had never seen a case in which a contract was the target of the Legislature as was the case here. “There have been separation of powers problems,” he said.

Funk, too, referred to the Legislature’s action and developments subsequent to the COA opinion as “kind of the gorilla in the courtroom,” but Justice Robert Rucker at times reigned in both attorneys in an effort to narrow the scope to matters briefed. He told Funk, “This is not properly before us.”  

Mulvaney opened his presentation focusing on the act of the Legislature. “Both sides have told you this is a unique case,” Mulvaney said, adding the court could deal sua sponte with legislation that “impairs a contract.”

Rucker asked Mulvaney, “Wouldn’t it be more important for the court to address … either the Court of Appeals got it right or got it wrong?”

Funk opened his argument telling the court there were two issues before it: whether the IURC-approved contract complied with statute, and if it didn’t, what the proper remedy would be.

Massa presented the first question for Funk, the only question he asked during the 40-minute oral argument. “Hasn’t that been effectively mooted by the subsequent action of the parties?” Massa said, referring to the amended contract. Funk said he didn’t believe the amendment mattered.

The section of the contract stipulating that any voided section voids it entirely, he said, was “not an accident, not an oversight, not a misplaced comma. … Either all of it is valid or none of it is valid.”

“This is not a garden-variety, bilateral contract entered into by the private sector,” Funk said, arguing the contract could not be “rewritten judicially.” He also argued there was a likelihood that ratepayers would see no savings until the expiration of the 30-year contract guaranteeing purchase prices.

But Mulvaney said justices should give deference to the IURC ruling, and stressed safeguards that were provided in the contract.

“The Indiana Finance Authority negotiated this looking at lot of different models” of potential commodity costs for substitute natural gas compared with current and projected costs. “The contract price is going to be more favorable over time,” he said.
 

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  1. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  2. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

  3. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

  4. Duncan, It's called the RIGHT OF ASSOCIATION and in the old days people believed it did apply to contracts and employment. Then along came title vii.....that aside, I believe that I am free to work or not work for whomever I like regardless: I don't need a law to tell me I'm free. The day I really am compelled to ignore all the facts of social reality in my associations and I blithely go along with it, I'll be a slave of the state. That day is not today......... in the meantime this proposed bill would probably be violative of 18 usc sec 1981 that prohibits discrimination in contracts... a law violated regularly because who could ever really expect to enforce it along the millions of contracts made in the marketplace daily? Some of these so-called civil rights laws are unenforceable and unjust Utopian Social Engineering. Forcing people to love each other will never work.

  5. I am the father of a sweet little one-year-old named girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. To anyone who reads this who may be considering the decision to terminate, please know that your child will absolutely light up your life as my daughter has the lives of everyone around her. There is no part of me that condones abortion of a child on the basis that he/she has or might have Down Syndrome. From an intellectual standpoint, however, I question the enforceability of this potential law. As it stands now, the bill reads in relevant part as follows: "A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion . . . if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or a potential diagnosis of Down syndrome." It includes similarly worded provisions abortion on "any other disability" or based on sex selection. It goes so far as to make the medical provider at least potentially liable for wrongful death. First, how does a medical provider "know" that "the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion SOLELY" because of anything? What if the woman says she just doesn't want the baby - not because of the diagnosis - she just doesn't want him/her? Further, how can the doctor be liable for wrongful death, when a Child Wrongful Death claim belongs to the parents? Is there any circumstance in which the mother's comparative fault will not exceed the doctor's alleged comparative fault, thereby barring the claim? If the State wants to discourage women from aborting their children because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I'm all for that. Purporting to ban it with an unenforceable law, however, is not the way to effectuate this policy.

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