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By Lesley Weidenbener
The courts would get first crack at deciding whether a contract between the state and a company developing a coal-to-natural-gas plant in Rockport is valid, under a bill passed Wednesday by an Indiana House committee.
But if the Indiana Supreme Court says no, then the legislation tells state regulators how they should proceed in evaluating any future deals.
"It's really up to us to look out for the ratepayers and if we don't do it, I'm concerned about whether it will be done," said Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington.
At issue is a 30-year contract the administration of former Gov. Mitch Daniels signed with Leucadia National Corp. that calls for the state to buy most of the fuel produced by the Indiana Gasification plant, resell it on the energy market, and pass the savings - or the losses - on to the customers of natural gas companies across the state. If by the end of the contract, those customers have lost money overall, the contract would require Leucadia to pay up to $150 million, and possibly forfeit its plant.
Daniels touted the deal as a good one for Hoosiers, saying that wide fluctuations in the price of natural gas over time make the synthetic natural gas a stable substitute. But opponents say 30 years is too long to see if the contract will save ratepayers and they claim that recent changes in the market mean natural gas prices will stay low.
Some of the state's natural gas utilities sued to stop it the contract from taking effect and the issue is currently tied up court. Both sides have asked the Indiana Supreme Court to take up the case.
Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, said Wednesday that his proposal means that if the high court upholds the contract, nothing in the bill will apply. The contract will stand.
But it would become relevant if the court strikes down the contract and the state and Leucadia come to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission with a new one. In that case, the bill directs regulators to consider a number of factors, including how customer savings will be determined and whether there should be a "true-up" at multiple intervals, instead of just at the end of the contract.
"It defers the technical issues to the IURC," Koch said.
The bill passed 10-3. Battles voted no, saying he is concerned about "giving the IURC complete control" over how often customer savings would be calculated.
Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Terre Haute, voted no but it was because he supports the deal and doesn't think the IURC needs to give it more scrutiny. "I do feel this project is best for the ratepayers," he said.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.