The environment plays a large role in issues, such as COVID-19 and racial justice, that are of major focus this election year.
As the gubernatorial race heads into its final month, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and Democratic challenger Dr. Woody Myers have mapped out strikingly different strategies to grow jobs while protecting the health and environment of Hoosiers.
Indiana’s environmental issues have not let up much in recent years. The state is a top producer of carbon emissions and continues to struggle with widespread air and water pollution. At the same time, the cost of energy is rising and the impacts of climate change are hitting harder than ever before.
Holcomb, a lifelong Hoosier and a veteran of the U.S. Navy, doesn’t list the environment as one of the top issues in his campaign. Before becoming governor four years ago, he worked as an adviser to former Gov. Mitch Daniels and formerly served as chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. He was lieutenant governor for a year under former Gov. Mike Pence.
From left, Indiana gubernatorial candidates Governor Eric Holcomb (R) and Woody Myers (D) (Photo: IndyStar file photos)
Myers, a physician by trade and third-generation Hoosier, calls the environment one of the top-five issues of his campaign, and criticizes Holcomb’s record. He was appointed as the state health commissioner by former Gov. Robert Orr in 1985. He also ran against Andre Carson for Indiana’s 7th Congressional District in 2008.
IndyStar questioned them about the environmental problems they believe are facing the state, as well as what they would like to see in Indiana’s environmental future.
When it comes to energy and regulation, the candidates took different approaches. But there also were a few topics on which Holcomb and Myers agreed. Both acknowledged that public health and racial justice are tied to the environment, and pledged to address pollution that disproportionately affects marginalized communities.
IndyStar’s environmental team sought interviews with Holcomb and Myers last month. Myers made himself available for a 45-minute interview and offered specific details related to issues such as energy and funding for the state environmental agency. Holcomb declined IndyStar’s request for an interview. He also asked that IndyStar limit questions to fewer than 10, which he answered via email.
Here’s what the candidates had to say.
Focus on the environment and climate change
Indiana is one of the country’s top emitters of carbon dioxide, a climate change-causing greenhouse gas, according to a national energy agency. The state is also seeing effects of climate change, particularly with increased rain and flooding that affected the state’s corn and soybean crops last year.
Such changes are expected to grow more severe and frequent, according to research by the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. Furthermore, when it comes to stewardship of the environment, Indiana has been ranked last or close to last on various surveys. On both issues, the candidates differ significantly.
Climate change is among Myers’ top priorities, according to his campaign website, along with education, healthcare, the economy and workforce. His campaign defines the climate crisis as both a national security and public health threat.
He echoed that sentiment during his interview, referencing the wildfires that are currently raging along the West Coast: That is “partially our fault because we are not contributing to a reduction of consumption of fossil fuel as aggressively as we should. And it’s wreaking havoc in our environment.”
Myers, 66, says his generation should take more responsibility on the issue.
Woody Myers announces his bid for governor, Wednesday, July 10, 2019, at the old Wishard Emergency Department where he once worked as a doctor. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)
“My generation, in essence, is part of the blame. We should have acted sooner, but it’s not too late,” Myers said. “So it’s my generation that ought to be the lead in fixing it.”
Myers said he feels the governor has put too little energy and attention into environmental stewardship, saying that “we have had insufficient focus on the environment in Indiana.”
Some of the specific tenets of Myers’ plan include doing an inventory of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and establishing reduction targets. He also wants to invite companies to purchase carbon offsets and enhance reforestation efforts.
Gov. Eric Holcomb
Holcomb’s stance on climate change is a bit less clear. The governor’s campaign website does not list the topic among his top-five priorities, which include the economy, workforce development, infrastructure and the drug epidemic. In fact, IndyStar could find no mention of the climate or environment on his website.
In response to a question about the environmental issues that were most important to him, Holcomb cited being responsible stewards of the state’s natural resources and continuing to make improvements to the air and water. However, the words “climate change” were not among them.
When asked his beliefs on climate change and the role of humans in causing it, Holcomb said that “while the extent of the contribution is debatable, especially depending on where on the planet you are, it’s reasonable to assume that human activity contributes to changes in our climate over time.”
IndyStar asked the governor about the amount of attention he has given to environmental issues, referencing the roughly 30 seconds of a previous 26-minute State of the State address in which he talked about clean coal. Holcomb pushed back at the idea that his administration cares less about the environment: “I don’t accept the premise that environmental issues aren’t a focus of my administration,” he said. “I could devote a full 26 minutes on the environment and just might consider doing so!”
Gov. Eric Holcomb (left) stands with the DNR Forestry Division Director John Seifert (middle), and DNR Director Dan Bortner after a ribbon cutting on Aug. 14 at Ravinia State Forest. The forest is one of two that were established during the ceremony. (Photo: Lydia Gerike)
In his response to IndyStar, Holcomb mentioned several environmental achievements under his administration. He touted his commitment to planting one million trees in five years, and is already a fifth of the way there, calling them “natural scrubbers.” The state recently established two new state forests, though some advocates are concerned this will give the state more timber to harvest. He also said that Indiana is using more than $40 million from a legal settlement with Volkswagen to improve air quality — funds that can only be spent for such programs and policies under terms of the settlement.
“That’s just part of our environmental record,” Holcomb said.
Energy and economy
More than half of Indiana’s energy today still comes from coal, though some utilities have announced plans to retire their coal plants in the coming decade. Historically, Indiana’s reliance on coal has kept energy prices low, and the state has used its cheaper-than-average energy to attract businesses. But over the last 10 years, Indiana’s energy costs have risen by nearly 30% and it now finds itself in the middle of the pack compared to other states.
Many environmental advocates point to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, as cheaper than fossil fuels, and point out that the energy industry is transitioning on its own. Indiana lawmakers are in the midst of a task force to determine the state’s energy policy for the future, though past policy decisions have slowed the transition from away from coal.
Gov. Eric Holcomb
When it comes to energy, Holcomb supports an all-of-the-above approach. This type of energy strategy includes renewable energy, but keeps fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal in the mix, as well. In the governor’s 2017 State of the State address, he said that “Indiana runs on coal.”
And he continued that sentiment in his responses to IndyStar, saying that his “team is committed to supporting Indiana’s most abundant and reliable energy sources, including the most allweather-reliable sources such as clean coal and gas.” That energy mix is “helping to keep energy costs low for Hoosiers,” according to Holcomb.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks during press availability at the governor’s residence in Indianapolis, Friday, March 31, 2017. Holcomb shared his agenda for Indiana, updates on the East Chicago emergency situation and his opinion on recent alcohol law discussion surrounding Ricker’s cold beer sales. (Photo: Jenna Watson/IndyStar)
In 2017, the governor signed into law a bill that phased out net metering, a policy to make rooftop solar more affordable for homeowners — becoming one of a few states to do so. This year, he also signed a law that slowed the transition from coal and last year backed an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have prevented new renewable projects.
Holcomb has said that he doesn’t believe the environment and economy need to be at odds: “We’ve shown in Indiana that we can have a roaring economy [prior to the pandemic] while also improving and conserving the environment.” He points to the fact that more than 80% percent of the state is farm or forest land.
Myers is all about renewable energy, he told IndyStar: “We still burn too much coal in Indiana, and it’s time for us to declare that we are moving away from coal and we’re not going to protect it anymore.”
Myers acknowledges that the state won’t be able to “get completely away” from fossil fuels today, as there needs to be more developments in battery storage and grid updates. Still, “the goal is to do that at one point,” Myers said, “but we can make much more progress now.”
In the meantime, Myers wants to bring back net metering as well as bring back a policy on energy efficiency and establish renewable standards. He also wants to put solar and wind on government buildings and properties such as correctional facilities, to establish rebates and credits for renewable technologies and to create incentives for renewable manufacturers to locate in Indiana.
Myers said he believes shifts to clean energy can create a boom in jobs and help grow the economy. There already are more jobs in Indiana in clean energy than in the coal industry, and Myers said he wants to focus on helping those coal communities transition to new, clean opportunities.
Indiana has one of the largest carbon emissions footprints in the country, at 176 million metric tons in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Indiana ranks 8th in the country for total carbon emissions, but when factored for emissions per person, it outranks almost every other state, including Texas, Illinois and Florida. Indiana’s average emissions per square mile is the highest of the top 10 states with the most total emissions.
Woody Myers announces his bid for governor, Wednesday, July 10, 2019, at the old Wishard Emergency Department where he once worked as a doctor. His wife Stacy Myers, left, stands by his side. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)
In the last decade, funding for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has fallen by 20%, even as state spending grew by 17%, with much of the loss affecting pollution control programs. The agency’s staff also lost 150 employees in that time, causing many environmental experts to question whether the agency has the resources it needs to accomplish its job.
Air quality is not the only issue handled by IDEM. Many wastewater plants and industrial facilities in Indiana remain in significant noncompliance of the Clean Water Act, and even more are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as having “high priority violations” of the Clean Air Act.
Gov. Eric Holcomb
Holcomb has in the past supported President Donald Trump’s push to deregulate emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources, in 2017 applauding his decision to reverse regulations on greenhouse gases.n He holds strong on that support today, after the Trump administration moved forward on dozens of rollbacks that experts say will likely lead to more air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Holcomb argues that removing “one-size-fits-all overregulation” from the federal government will allow the state and Hoosier taxpayers to pursue the all-of-the-above energy mix, which he described as diverse and balanced.
The coal industry is facing reduced demand for coal because of the retirement of coal-fired power plants. Indianapolis Power & Light Co.’s Harding Street plant is being converted to natural gas. (Photo: Charlie Nye / The Star 2015 file photo)
“States know how to best craft environment policies that balance their needs. I support efforts by the current administration to return more authority, on a number of issues, back to the states,” Holcomb said in an email. “My point is, hold us accountable for our footprint.”
Holcomb last year signed a bill that would allow for an increase in IDEM permitting fees to offset the agency’s funding decrease, but environmental advocates said that bill really only held the IDEM budget at its 2018 levels — still 20% lower than they were a decade before.
When asked whether he would consider reinstating funding for the environmental agency, Holcomb did not answer with a yes or no. Instead, he said the air and water are the cleanest they have been since the Clean Air and Water Acts, both passed between 40 and 50 years ago. He also said the Indiana Finance Authority has helped cities and towns save millions by upgrading water and sewer systems.
“My Administration doesn’t measure our effectiveness by the number of dollars or personnel,” Holcomb said in an email. “We’ve got a great team at IDEM and they’re continuing to make significant contributions to our state. … We want to make sure we continue doing all our parts to keep improving our environment community by community.”
Although he did not specifically respond to the rollbacks, Myers does not share Holcomb’s positive view of Trump’s approach to environmental issues.
“Trump is wrong,” Myers said. “He’s wrong about so many things, but his denial of climate change is a part of the major problem in our environment. It’s just wrong, climate change is real.”
Regarding environmental regulation within the state, Myers said he would also reinstate funding for IDEM.
Myers said if he is elected, he will ensure that IDEM was “re-energized” to address the state’s issues.
This might entail ensuring that IDEM takes a look at current regulations, he said, to ensure that they are up-to-date with most recent recommendations and data. Myers said he would also work to make sure that IDEM hears public input, so that people feel they have voice in the decisions that are being made by the environmental agency
“IDEM needs a shot of epinephrine,” Myers said, referencing the chemical also known as adrenaline. “IDEM will get more resources, IDEM will get more attention, IDEM will do its job.”
Health and racial justice
As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives this year, attention on public health has taken precedence in much of the political sphere. At the same time, public outcry over systemic racism has also dominated much of the political conversation after the killing of George Floyd resulted in widespread protests over police brutality.
In the following months, the environmental community was also pushed to reflect on inequity within itself, as well as place higher priority on the systemic racism that puts Black communities at higher risk from pollution, hazardous waste and climate change. Air pollution has also been tied to more severe cases of COVID-19, which has also disproportionately impacted Black populations.
Dr. Woody Myers
Myers, previously the State Health Commissioner, at one point oversaw both the state health department and IDEM. During that time he said he saw the way that the environment directly impacted public health, such as how air pollution can lead to respiratory issues and heart problems.
“Another reason we care about the environment is because we care about health, right. So we’ve got to make sure that there is a linkage,” Myers said. “Everything has to have public health, I think, as its core.”
Citing the historic contamination in East Chicago neighborhoods that resulted in hundreds of children, mostly in Black communities, being affected by lead poisoning, Myers acknowledged that public health and the environment play a role in racial justice, as well.
Gov. Eric Holcomb
Holcomb pledged to address racial inequity in a statewide address in August. He said that could include environmental justice, telling IndyStar that “all aspects of inequity are on the table.” A new chief equity, inclusion and opportunity officer will work with IDEM in the future, he said.
Investments in the environment will also benefit public health, which Holcomb said is a point of focus for him, through cleaning up soil, air and waterways.
“I do see the connection environmental factors have on public health, and we’re making progress on improving both,” he said in an email. “We understand that quality of life and quality of place is just as important as our tax and regulatory climate.”
Early voting is available from Oct. 6 to Nov. 2, and election day is Nov. 3. Contact your county clerk for information on voting locations and hours.
Contact IndyStar reporter London Gibson at 317-419-1912 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @londongibson.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah.
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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