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Dueling energy proposals bear monitoring

The fate of monthly utility bills and the future of Indiana energy policy will be a hot topic of discussion in the Indiana General Assembly.

Once again, the proposed coal-to-gas plant to be built in Rockport by Indiana Gasification will be the subject of legislation. Two companion bills, SB 510 (authored by Sen. Doug Eckerty – R, Yorktown) and HB 1515 (authored by Rep. Suzanne Crouch – R, Evansville) promise to protect consumers from what are certain to be excessive charges for the substitute natural gas to be produced by the proposed facility. By making this the law of our state, captive Hoosier ratepayers will be protected from being gouged by an Enron-like scheme that promises hefty returns for a privately held, out-of-state hedge fund.

Conversely, SB 560 (authored by Sen. Brandt Hershman, R, Monticello) guarantees that captive gas and electricity ratepayers will face enormous bill increases; the legislation eliminates regulatory protections to which captive consumers are entitled. SB 560 will shift almost all of the costs and risk of operating a monopoly utility company to captive ratepayers and away from voluntary investors. Additionally, SB 560 would allow the monopoly utilities to raise rates virtually automatically and would further reduce regulatory oversight by placing unreasonable time restrictions on both the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor to review requests by the monopoly utilities to raise your rates. Should SB 560 become law, monopoly utility profits will become excessive as the utilities will have little incentive to control costs while the more expensive, risky and obsolete technologies will continue to be chosen over cheaper, cleaner and less risky alternatives.

Every branch of government is being asked to do more with less. The public is struggling with stagnant and diminishing wages, while monthly electric bills have increased nearly 50 percent over the last decade, and the cost of living continues to soar, especially for essentials such as food and health care. Meanwhile, the monopoly electric and gas utility companies in Indiana are working hard to undermine regulatory oversight and are attempting to deregulate their monopoly revenue and profits. They are asking your elected officials for a raise, and they want it to come from your checkbook. While everyone else is being forced to tighten their belts and the working class and vulnerable populations struggle to survive, the monopoly utilities parade around the halls of government with unfettered access working to increase their monopoly revenue and profits at the expense of the public.

It should be interesting to observe the now Republican-dominated General Assembly and a newly elected governor with no Statehouse experience navigate the two paradigms. Will they allow the monopoly utilities with their deep pockets to control the agenda and the future of Indiana energy policy, or will they stand up for consumers, keep the utilities in check and protect the public interest? We’ll learn the answer during what promises to be a long and contentious 2013 General Assembly session. Stay tuned.

Kerwin Olson is executive director of Citizens Action Coalition in Indianapolis. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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