A contentious bill offering protection to the Indiana coal industry garnered considerable conversation Saturday at the League of Women Voters of Vigo County’s monthly legislative crackerbarrel.

The two-hour session featuring State Sen. Jon Ford and State Reps. Tonya Pfaff and Bruce Borders covered most everything from gerrymandering to tenant law, but it was House Bill 1414 that provoked the most conversation.

Authored by Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, the bill, HB 1414, would require utility companies to notify the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission if they plan to close an energy-producing plant. The IURC over the ensuing months would hold a hearing and issue findings, after which the utility could close its facility.

Critics of the bill said it is aimed at saving or at least slowing the decline of the coal industry by stopping the state’s utilities from transitioning to other sources of fuel like natural gas or renewable ones like wind or solar.

HB 1414 passed the House 52 to 41.

Sarah Dillon first broached the subject and asked Borders and Pfaff whether they supported the bill in the House and what Ford thought of the legislation as it heads to the Senate.

Borders, R-Jasonville, said he argued in favor of the bill on the House floor and would do the same at the Vigo County Public Library on Saturday.

He said it’s strange coal is seemingly talked about like a step-child in the energy family, despite it being responsible for 70-some percent of the energy generated in the state.

“Coal is still the major provider of electricity in the state of Indiana and provides more than a third across the United States,” Borders said. “It is a pipe dream to believe that we can shut down these coal plants and pretend that renewables are going to overnight replace that and provide affordable electricity.”

Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, said she voted against the bill, using a common refrain heard from Republican colleagues as part of her reasoning.

“Don’t they say up here all the time we should let the market decide?” Pfaff said. “And the market has decided that we have enough coal and that we’re ready for natural gas and renewables.”

Lisa Spence-Bunnett later followed up on HB 1414, asking what, if anything, the state is doing to prepare for a future when coal isn’t the energy titan.

Ford said the bill, if nothing else, is a brief respite needed to study the viability of Indiana’s coal and coal-fired generation markets and an opportunity for the state to craft an energy strategy for the near future.

He said the state, and especially west central Indiana, isn't yet ready to flip the switch on alternative generation methods.

“You also have to consider the reality of our community; from here down to Vincennes, coal is responsible for more than $100 million in payroll,” Ford said. “It affects our economy, it affects our schools, and we need to really think about what we’re doing with this and stop making rash decisions.”

Ford said that while he hasn’t taken the opportunity yet to comb through all the fine detail of HB 1414, he said the section addressing relief for displaced coal workers seems needed.

“In Sullivan County two weeks ago they took a big hit with the power plant and Sunrise Coal both shutting down,” Ford said. “Those are hundreds of jobs paying great salaries that are just gone.

“And that will affect those communities greatly.”

Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at alex.modesitt@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex. 

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