Photograph by Danny Bolin

Legendary Hoosier environmentalist John Blair says Indiana is one of the world’s leading contributors to global warming. Not only does the state generate 95 percent of its electricity from coal, but five of the nation's dirtiest 50 power plants are located here. Blair received training from Al Gore’s Climate Project and spoke to a full Monroe County Public Library Auditorium in Bloomington on May 23.

On May 9, 31 states announced the creation of the Climate Registry - a voluntary, collaborative program to track greenhouse gas emissions and establish methods for verifying and reporting heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.

The fact that Indiana chose not to participate doesn't surprise John Blair, head of Valley Watch, the Evansville-based environmental group he founded in 1981 and still heads. But he asserts that the situation wouldn't be any different if Mitch Daniels weren't governor.

"The Democrats in this state are just as responsible as the Republicans for global warming, pollution and utility friendliness," he said.

Blair is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer with a history of engaging in civil disobedience when appeals to reason and fact fail. Since January, he has exchanged his bullhorn for the microphone, giving presentations about global warming based on training he received from Al Gore's Climate Project.

He recently gave The Bloomington Alternative insight into his Bloomington presentation, scheduled for May 23 at the Monroe County Public Library.

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In a phone conversation from the Valley Watch offices, Blair elaborated on what he calls Indiana's inconvenient truth.

"Indiana is the biggest producer of carbon dioxide from coal in the nation," he said. "And since the nation really exceeds everybody else by so much, I suspect that we're one of the biggest polluters in the world."

Critics might call that hyperbole, but the facts are on Blair's side.

According to a July 2006 study by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Indiana has five of the nation's 50 dirtiest power plants, the most of any state.

EIP is a five-year-old, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization created by former EPA attorneys that advocates for more effective enforcement of environmental laws.

And an international body of scientists called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released several reports recently that offer evidence of a clear connection between human actions - most notably, the burning of fossil fuels like coal - and global climate change.

The IPPC's April 4, 2007, "Report to Policy Makers" states: "Global greenhouse gas emissions [including CO2] have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70 percent between 1970 and 2004."

The energy sector provided the largest growth in global greenhouse gas during the period - 145 percent.

Indiana gets 95 percent of its electricity from coal.

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At his own expense, Blair took the Climate Project's three-day training in Nashville, Tenn., in January. The program delved into the details behind each slide of Gore's Keynote presentation that formed the basis of the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Gore participated in the training, and Blair, who noted he had not previously been a big fan, was impressed with Gore's intellect and ability to communicate.

"More than anything else I was impressed with his phenomenal level of commitment to make sure that this job gets done," Blair said.

The Climate Project has trained 1,000 citizens to give general presentations on global warming, but Blair has a unique interpretation.


Photograph by John Blair

The energy sector produced a 145 percent growth in greenhouse emissions between 1970 and 2004, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the largest of any industry. The Indiana Michigan Power company’s Rockport plant, shown here, is one of the dirtiest.

"Most of the people who have come to my presentations so far have already read the IPCC reports and seen Gore's movie," he said.

So Blair is more interested in providing details about Indiana's contribution to the problem, especially sources in southwestern Indiana.

"There are two industries here that put out more toxic pollution than Cook County, Ill., Los Angeles County and Orange County, Calif., combined," he said, referring to AK Steel in Rockport and Duke Energy's Gibson Station power plant near Princeton.

"Those three counties have a total population of 18 million people, and the industries here are from counties that have a combined population of less than 30,000," he said.

Blair thinks this fact illustrates the relative significance of the pollution in his part of the Hoosier state.

"It really puts it in a perspective that most people have not heard before," he said.

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In particular, Blair said, Indiana must find alternatives to coal.

"We cannot afford to follow this coal-burning path any longer," he said emphatically. "Coal is dirty at every part of its fuel cycle. From the time you knock down the first tree to build a mine to the time you dispose of coal combustion waste in a mine, it's a dirty, nasty process.

"It's amazing to me that the production of electricity in Indiana is over four times the production of electricity per capita in California," he added. "On any given day we export 25 to 40 percent of the electricity we produce in Indiana."

He scoffs at the notion that power plants are sound economic development projects.

"They are the antithesis of economic development," Blair said. "I think we've created a real monster."

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Amy Hartsock, speaking on behalf of Thomas Easterly, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), pointed to the costs of third-party management of the multistate Climate Registry as the reason Indiana has not signed on.

She said it would require Indiana "to obtain additional funding for the development and implementation of the new registry," she said.

Agreeing to participate would require transferring at least $25,000 of Hoosier taxpayer money to start up the new Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, she added.

While the third-party verification of data and compliance proposed has been hailed by some of the participating states as crucial to the agreement's success, Hartsock said Easterly was concerned about what he characterized as "a nearly open checkbook for future costs." He decided it was not prudent for Indiana to make this commitment.

"We will not divert regulatory program resources to national nongovernmental organizations," Hartsock added.

While $25,000 might seem like a lot of money, according to a recent EIP report, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the federally mandated emission fees IDEM fails to collect each year from polluters.

The EIP report looked at 18 states in which fees fell below the minimum established by the federal Clean Air Act. It found that Indiana set lower emission fees on polluters, and its ceiling on the amount that can be collected was lower than the federal standard.

The result: a loss of $3.6 million in potential revenue for IDEM to help protect the health of Hoosiers from the effects of air pollution.

Blair cited tradition as one of the biggest obstacles for Indiana and most of the Midwest to changing the energy paradigm.

"Our task is incredibly difficult because the people who are making these decisions don't think about going from coal to wind, or increasing efficiency and conservation," Blair said. "It's not part of their mindset. All they think is that we need more energy so we need to build another coal-fired power plant."

While he's not about to concede that Indiana needs more generating capacity, Blair said the least we can do is think about getting energy some other way. Otherwise, our grandchildren are in for a big surprise.

"It's conceivable to me that our electrical rates could double just to pay for the carbon emissions from the plants that already exist," he said.

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Blair has announced two initiatives to accelerate cultural change regarding global warming.

One is called "Conservation Is Cool," which seeks to persuade children that it's cool to conserve energy by flipping off the light switch when they leave a room or wearing a sweater in winter instead of turning up the thermostat.

"They're going to have limited resources in the future," Blair said. "If their habits are the same as their parents' have been, their world is going to be hell."

The other initiative is "20 by 10." Blair said it's "an appeal to people all over this nation, if not the world, to reduce their personal energy consumption 20 percent by 2010."

He acknowledges it's a lofty goal but one worth pursuing.

"If we do it, we can immediately reduce the need for any coal-fired power plants anywhere in the nation," he said.

He considers it a model people can easily adopt.

"A lot of it is just recognizing the issue and thinking about your purchases," he said. "The free market system is based on the idea that reasonable people will do reasonable things for their own benefit, so we have to change the way we consume. I think our whole salvation is based upon changing the notion that success is measured by waste."

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The idea of monitoring personal consumption and being as conservative as possible about energy use is more appealing to Blair than purchasing greenhouse gas offsets - a point that occurred to him when he was in a Nashville hotel for the Climate Project training.

"The organizers were proud to say it was a carbon-neutral meeting," he said, adding, "Gore makes a big point out of all that."

Blair chuckled as he recalled the energy-inefficient windows and the comfortable thermostat setting in the hotel.

"When I heard it was all accomplished by buying offsets, I was a little concerned," he said.

"The people selling the offsets are required to have a certain level of morality and integrity, but I'm not sure that when money's involved morality and integrity are very much in play," he said. "I'm skeptical of cap and trade and the whole idea of offsets. I think that not using the stuff to begin with is better than trying to offset it."

Thomas P. Healy can be reached at thomasphealy@sbcglobal.net.