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Socializing the Risk, Privatizing the Profits

The Gasification of Indiana

by JOHN BLAIR

When the Indiana Gasification plant was first proposed for Rockport by the Daniels administration in November 2006, the price of natural gas was on the rise at around $9/mmbtu. Suddenly taking coal’s hydrocarbons and converting them to usable "syngas" seemed to make sense, at least until you got to the details.

That is presumably why the legislature passed a law telling the state’s gas utilities that they had to negotiate thirty year contracts with Indiana Gasification on a "take or pay" basis that forced Indiana ratepayers to use syngas no matter what the cost.

Then, Indiana Gasification trotted before the Indiana utility Regulatory Commission with their proposal while negotiations were taking place. Sadly for them, the utilities soon discovered that even with prices for natural gas on the rise, that the required price for syngas was just too high to be competitive with even volatile natural gas, which by early 2008 had risen to $13.

The something big happened. New drilling technology, called hydro fracturing quickly developed for securing natural gas. The result was huge "discoveries" of natural gas in both the west and the eastern regions of the US.

Gas producers found they could produce nearly unlimited supplies of natural gas if the price remained somewhere between $4 and $5/mmbtu.

Indiana Gasification had a problem. The cost just to produce their inferior "syngas" which ultimately emits far more CO2 than natural gas when consumed was at least 50% higher than natural gas and that price did not include capturing and sequestering the enormous carbon emissions the use of coal as feedstock cause or retiring any of the massive multi billion dollar debt to build such a facility.

Indiana gas utilities ultimately walked away from the venture and soon thereafter, Indiana Gasification withdrew their IURC petition knowing they had another plan.

In short order, IG had secured support from State Rep, Russ Stilwell and Senator, Brandt Hershman for a bill that more resembled the business model of communist China than the US.

Since they could not gain utility approval for their project, they decided that legislative fiat forcing the State to purchase their more expensive syngas was in order. Our pro coal legislature readily agreed with a measure that puts the state in the business of buying all the syngas output of the plant and forces gas utilities to pass it along to Hoosier gas customers, who would then pay a hefty premium for the privilege of using coal derived gas instead of natural gas.

But IG was not done with the financial screw they were inserting into the public trough. They also sought to incur nearly zero risk in their project by securing a “loan guarantee” from the federal government so that they were protected both from the risk of building an ill fated venture as well as forcing Indiana customers to buy their product at a premium.

On December 3, the US Department of Energy is holding a hearing in Rockport (pop. 2068), a community that already emits more toxic pollution that New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego, (pop.34 million) combined. The purpose of the hearing is to take public comment on what should be included in the Environmental Impact Statement required before the Federal Government issues the dubious loan guarantee.

So here we have a company that wishes to take zero risk to develop a technology that has never been competitive since its first use in the 19th Century. They want to do it in one of the most polluted small towns in America and of course they hope to make millions for themselves on the backs of Hoosier gas customers who will pay considerably more for their product than the “free market” would allow.

The sad thing is that this is being done with the blessings of state politicians like Mitch Daniels who like to call themselves conservatives and oppose any sort of effort to help clean, renewable energy by saying those sources should make it in the private sector instead of relying on what they call “socialized” energy.

There is obviously something terribly wrong with this picture.

Unfortunately, citizens remain n the dark as to what exactly is being proposed. IG has yet to file a construction permit application with IDEM and a Freedom of Information Act request that Valley Watch and Sierra Club filed with DOE in back in June regarding IG’s loan guarantee application has gone unanswered although DOE is required by Federal Law to respond within ten working days.

We suspect the secrecy is due to the fact that both DOE and IG know that this project is not viable economically unless they can find a “patsy” like the state of Indiana to take their risk for them.

However, several groups are determined to keep this atrocity from happening. Valley Watch, Sierra Club, Citizens Action Coalition and a newly formed Spencer County Citizens for Quality of Life are and will continue to stand in their way, in an effort to bring both environmental and health justice to the region as well continually seeking to hold a line on rates Hoosiers must pay for their electricity and gas.

Please join us by contacting us at: http://valleywatch.net.

JOHN BLAIR is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who serves as president of the environmental health advocacy group Valley Watch in Evansville, IN. He is a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland, edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank. (AK Press) His email address is ecoserve1@aol.com