Indiana lawmakers amend environment bills as deadlines near

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Dozens of amendments to bills affecting Indiana environmental policy have sparked debate among lawmakers as the Legislature enters its final stretch of the session.

The proposed changes arrive as members of the General Assembly decide whether the state should adopt greener initiatives or scale back current policy protecting water, energy and other resources.

One bill under consideration by the full House, Senate Bill 373, would create a state-sponsored carbon market in Indiana that allows companies looking to offset their carbon footprint to pay for greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

While some companies already pay to reduce emissions in one place — to make up for emissions they create elsewhere — Indiana lacks a formal market, meaning money paid for those offsets is often sent out of state or overseas.

The voluntary program established by the Senate bill would bring the two sides of these transactions together, instead giving Hoosier farmers and forest owners an extra source of income for practices that capture and store carbon.

Large corporations with operations in Indiana that have pledged to become carbon neutral include Amazon, FedEx and Nestlé.

Although the plan has earned broad support, Democrats and environmental advocates are pushing back against an amendment approved by the House natural resources committee last week that provides immunity to an Indiana company slated to begin the nation’s largest carbon dioxide storage project in 2023.

The amendment prevents Wabash Valley Resources LLC, which operates a hydrogen production facility in Terre Haute, from being sued if carbon emissions it injects underground move to neighboring properties where they are not supposed to go.

Landowners could not bring legal action against the company for perceived risks and would only be able to claim damages if they prove the company caused physical harm to them or their property, according to the amended bill.

Nalin Grupta, a partner for Wabash Valley Resources, maintained that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “makes us go through one of the most stringent permitting processes” and said the carbon dioxide would be stored so far underground that it shouldn’t affect those living nearby: “How many people would sue an airplane that flies over your head 8,000 feet?”

Others expressed concern that the technology could pollute drinking water and cause earthquakes.

“We have no idea yet about the implications of the long-term storage of CO2 underground. We are talking about super critical highly pressurized carbon dioxide that is injected into rock formations where there is brine and gases and other materials,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, who opposed the amendment. “This is something we just don’t know enough about.”

Democratic Rep. Ryan Dvorak of South Bend added that the state doesn’t waive liability for other industrial businesses like steel mills and car manufacturers.

“If an enterprise needs to request some sort of immunity in order to conduct business in the state, that should always be a big red flag,” he said.

Senators also made drastic changes to a controversial renewable energy bill meant to set standards for wind and solar projects after the plan prompted outcry from local officials over the need for more community authority.

The original bill established parameters for how close wind and solar projects can be to other properties, overriding municipal ordinances that restrict or prohibit wind power.

Amendments approved Thursday to House Bill 1381 by the Senate Utilities Committee, however, allow county and local governments to maintain more restrictive ordinances and provide the option for local units to approve wind projects. The new provisions also include monetary incentives for counties to adopt more restrictive ordinances on their own.

“We’re truly keeping everything in this process at the local control level,” said Sen. Mark Messmer, a Republican from Jasper. “We want to be looking farther into the future, looking at the transition that’s coming from coal fuels to renewable assets. And we want to set the parameters that will help in the long run.”

The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Among the session’s most contested environmental bills is another seeking to remove protection for Indiana’s already diminished wetlands. If passed, Senate Bill 389 would repeal a 2003 law requiring the Indiana Department of Environmental Management permit activity in a state-regulated wetland and end enforcement proceedings against landowners allegedly violating current law.

Republican bill author Sen. Chris Garten and other sponsors said vague language in the law, overenforcement by regulators and high mitigation fees that drive up housing costs prompted the drafting. They contend removal of state protections would help developers and grow the housing market.

State regulatory officials and environmental groups have continued to rally against the proposal, arguing that because wetlands provide water purification, habitat for wildlife and reduced flood risks, it’s critical they’re protected.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said lawmakers are crafting more amendments “that narrow the scope of the bill and addresses some concerns,” adding that the measure is expected to move to the full House after a committee vote Monday.

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