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Coal industry arguing reliability for Indiana protection

December 5, 2020 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Two large coal companies have started a new lobbying push as Indiana legislators are poised to again consider steps that could bolster the industry facing a shift toward renewable energy sources.

The companies launched a trade association named Reliable Power, aiming to rebrand coal from a polluting, low-tech fuel into a reliable source of electricity, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported.

Republican lawmakers are preparing proposals for the legislative session starting in January that they say will address stability and reliability on the electrical grid. Environmental and consumer groups, however, worry that legislation could stall the growth of wind and solar power while propping up the coal industry.

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Indiana electric utilities have announced plans to shut down at least 10 of the state’s 13 coal-burning power units by 2028, while coal companies in the past year have laid off hundreds of workers at mines clustered in southwestern Indiana.

“Certainly, there have been a number of challenges over the past five to 10 years nationally,” said Reliable Power CEO Matt Bell, a former Republican legislator and a high-profile Statehouse lobbyist. “But when we look globally, the industry is strong. And we believe that coal has an important part to play in the future of energy production in the U.S., at least for the foreseeable future.”

Oklahoma-based Alliance Coal and Terre Haute-based Hallador Energy formed Reliable Power despite the existence of the Indiana Coal Council, which has lobbied for the coal industry since 1980.

Kerwin Olson, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Citizens Action Coalition, said the “Reliable” name is just repackaging, “in an attempt to persuade lawmakers, regulators and the public that coal is necessary in order to ensure reliable power.”

The move comes after Republican lawmakers pushed through a bill during the Legislature’s 2020 session making it more difficult for electric utility companies to close more coal-fired power plants and a state energy task force in November urged passage of a law “to assure generation and transmission resource adequacy throughout Indiana.”

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The coal-burning plant closings are happening even as President Donald Trump tried to boost the coal industry. Hallador had previously hired Trump’s former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt in 2019 as an Indiana lobbyist aiming to block such closures.

Republican Rep. Ed Soliday, chairman of the House utilities committee, said a proposal being drafted would establish a reliability standard for electricity generation, giving the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission responsibility for making sure electric companies don’t move from coal to renewables so quickly that the electrical grid become unreliable.

“I couldn’t save the coal industry if I were the Apostle Paul,” Soliday said. “What we care about is, the lights come on when we turn the switch.”

Indiana Coal Council asked the energy task force last month to support the state requiring the utility industry as a whole to use coal for 52% of its fuel in the first year, then gradually decline to 24% in the 15th year.

Jesse Kharbanda, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s executive director, said that kind of step would be a setback to the growing renewables industry.

“Advancing such a bill would also signal that the Indiana General Assembly has a gross lack of confidence in the private sector,” Kharbanda said, “when Indiana’s utilities have been consistently providing reliable power to consumers and have a legal requirement to do so.”