Corporations have not figured out how to get themselves elected to public office, but Peabody Energy and Indiana Rail Road Co. have the next best thing going in Indiana: Both companies have senior employees in the state legislature, and both of those lawmakers have been amending legislation in ways that would enrich their employers at the expense of state residents, public health, and the environment.
A proposed coal-gas plant in Rockport could have a big impact on the pocketbooks of Indiana residents, but legislation that would introduce new ratepayer protections has twice been watered down at the hands of lawmakers whose employers could benefit from the project.
The lawmakers, Sen. Jim Merritt and Rep. Matt Ubelhor, both have strong ties to the coal industry, which wants to see the project move forward because it would open up a new market for their product. Demand for coal has been waning as aging coal-burning electric plants are shuttered and replaced with cleaner forms of energy production.
Merritt, who is chairman of the Senate Utility Committee, also is vice president for corporate affairs with the Indiana Rail Road Co. Most of the railroad’s business comes from hauling coal, and its largest clients include utility and coal mining companies. Ubelhor is an operations manager for Peabody Energy, the largest coal mining company in Indiana. Both companies could gain new business from the Rockport plant.
The two lawmakers don’t see any conflicts of interest here. From the Evansville Courier & Press:
“I’m a coal miner and proud of what I do,” [Ubelhor] said, adding that he understands the criticism but wants to wait until lawmakers have addressed the Rockport project’s future before he answers more questions.
And as he pitched his amendment [to reduce regulatory review of the proposed $2.8 billion project and make it more likely to proceed], he was open about both his employment and his intentions.
“Are we going to sit here and look at all these plant closings?” he asked, criticizing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
“This adds about 3.8 million tons of coal production to our coal,” he said. “This will put the industry back on footing to compete with the markets that are out today, and that’s all we’re asking for as miners — if we can compete and be part of the next century.”
Merritt … also pointed out that the Indiana Rail Road Co. doesn’t have access to Rockport.
But the rail company did recently invest $17.5 million on a spur to Bear Run Mine in Sullivan County. That mine is the largest east of the Mississippi River and is owned by Peabody Energy, which, as Indiana’s largest coal company, would likely compete to supply coal to the new plant in Rockport. Merritt’s company is the sole carrier providing service to Bear Run.
“I put all that aside when I chair the utility committee,” Merritt said.
Sure you do, Merritt.
The fate of legislation related to the plant is up in the air. Consumer advocates, environmentalists, and other opponents of this boondoggle-in-the-making intend to keep on fighting.