Photograph by Steven Higgs

HEC Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda says progress was made in the 2009 legislative session. For the first time in history, House and Senate both passed bills that would have required Indiana utilities to use power from renewable sources, but Senate Republicans killed the measure in conference committee.

For a guy who hasn‘t been in Indiana a year-and-a-half yet, Jesse Kharbanda has a firm grasp on how environmental politics play in the state. A few weeks before the remnants of his Hoosier Environmental Council’s (HEC) priorities lay ravaged on the floor of the Indiana General Assembly yet again, he detailed the strategies and processes that would deny Hoosiers their environmental right to clean, healthy air.

“Change obviously happens very, very slowly here,” HEC’s executive director since December 2007 said in measured words. “And part of that is the way our General Assembly is structured.”

Under Indiana’s legislative procedures, one senator could, and on April 29 did, kill HEC’s No. 1 priority on energy policy, for reasons that Kharbanda detailed 44 days earlier: “People want to insert coal and nuclear into the definition of renewable energy in a renewable electricity standard.”



Read Part 2 of The Bloomington Alternative’s conversation with Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda "The uphill struggle against King Coal" in the upcoming May 31 edition.


The RES, as renewable electricity standards are known, would have required Indiana utilities to provide 15 percent of their power from renewable energy sources and energy efficiencies by 2025. Bills that would have required just that passed both houses, including the Republican-controlled Senate. But it died in a House-Senate conference committee after Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Monticello, the GOP’s Majority Whip, insisted nuclear be considered “renewable.”

That Kharbanda, a 31-year-old St. Louis native, is a quick study is obvious from his resume. He has an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago in economics and environmental studies and is a Rhodes Scholar who studied economics at Oxford University. Before becoming only the third HEC director in 25 years, he held a two-year “management stint in the private sector” before joining the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) in Chicago, where he specialized in rural energy and farm policies.

Pre-Oxford, he anticipated, a career as a professional economist or policy thinker tackling the “grave development challenges” facing poor countries. But graduate school coincided with the Bush administration’s dramatic environmental rollbacks, against which Kharbanda felt compelled to act.

“I began to feel that my work would actually be more impactful if I were to focus my energies on U.S. policy, in particular on global warming policy,” he said.

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Kharbanda said he fell into Indiana environmental politics when he filled in for ELPC senior staffers who couldn’t attend a meeting in the tiny Benton County town of Fowler, on the Illinois border in Northwest Indiana.

"I felt a real connection with Indiana and with the very different way in which politics seemed to work in the state."

“I felt a real connection with Indiana and with the very different way in which politics seemed to work in the state,” he said during an interview at his office in the NUVO building near 38th and Meridian in Indianapolis.

And while the soft-spoken Kharbanda wouldn’t put it so bluntly, the environmental disaster that Indiana is hearkens him back to his ancestral roots and early interest in environmental devastation.

“My consciousness on environmental issues really got elevated during my college years, particularly from having done some field work in Punjab, where my parents are from,” he said, referring to the Northern India state. “That summer was particularly formative because it deepened my exposure to the great inter-linkages between poverty and environmental degradation.”

Through ELPC, Kharbanda helped found the Indiana Coalition for Renewable Energy and Economic Development (ICREED), whose vision is to organize a diverse set of interested parties, from environmental and consumer groups to public health and labor groups and green businesses.

That model of bringing people together to fight for “genuinely good policy” was something that the HEC Board of Directors liked, Kharbanda said, and ultimately was a factor in his being named director.

“That coalition was kind of powered by support from Sen. Lugar’s office,” he said. Indiana’s senior Republican U.S. Senator has a longstanding interest in clean energy policy, “not necessarily exactly in alignment with what we would support, but certainly a new direction for the way things are done in this state.”

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The RES, which citizen groups like HEC, Citizens Action Coalition and others have lobbied years for, wasn’t the only environmental bill killed by individual Republicans in the 2009 session. Another, which also died in committee, would have enabled citizens to generate their own electricity. And after both houses agreed on an energy efficiency building code bill designed to reduce carbon emissions and conserve energy, Gov. Mitch Daniels vetoed it.

"We’re interested in preserving and protecting the longevity of rural Indiana."

Energy, Kharbanda said, is one of three areas that HEC is focused on under his leadership, along with agriculture and transportation, which account for significant portions of Indiana’s high rates of air, water and toxic pollution. The state’s environmental quality is so bad that Forbes magazine in 2007 ranked Indiana the nation’s 49th “greenest state.”

Of the five most polluted states -- in order: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Indiana and West Virginia -- the magazine said: “All suffer from a mix of toxic waste, lots of pollution and consumption and no clear plans to do anything about it. Expect them to remain that way.”

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), for example, have been responsible for around 500 manure spills since 2005, Kharbanda said, attributing the information to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). Also known as “factory farms,” CAFOs confine thousands of pigs, chickens or cows in enclosed structures and store their manure in outdoor lagoons.

“These are devastating to already degraded water quality, and they impair rural Indiana,” he said of spills from CAFO lagoons. “I think that’s a theme that we want to keep underscoring, that we’re interested in preserving and protecting the longevity of rural Indiana.”

On the CAFO front, Indiana’s environment won a significant victory but overall suffered a net loss in the 2009 session. A new “good-character law” will require IDEM to consider CAFO operators’ history of environmental violations before allowing them to expand. But another will weaken the ability of local communities to regulate disposal of animal waste.

In addition to fighting the proposed new-terrain Interstate 69/NAFTA Highway, Kharbanda said HEC is “trying to deal with the longstanding imbalances in our transportation priorities.”

Specifically, Indiana spends an “appallingly little amount of money” on public transportation, he said. “We spend about $20 per year per person on public transit, and in California it’s about $100. In New York State it’s about $200.”

Working with a variety of groups, HEC promoted what Kharbanda called a “sound public transit funding bill” that passed the House but died in the Senate, where a Republican Senate Committee chair denied it even a hearing.

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In addition to the legislative obstacles, another barrier to change in Indiana is cultural, Kharbanda said. Hoosiers make decisions exceedingly slowly and cautiously, preferring to see new approaches tried out in other places first.

"Change obviously happens very, very slowly here."

“There’s a sense of pride that that is actually a mark of deliberation,” he said, “whereas, in my view, an important part of that is that it represents a chronic undervaluing of nature and the power of nature to really tackle a lot of the challenges that this state faces.”

But, knowledgeable of how things work in Indiana, Kharbanda sees signs of hope, both from this legislative session and the Hoosier spirit he’s experienced in his 17 months as HEC’s director.

Both houses of the General Assembly for the first time this year did pass RES bills, as well as the good-character CAFO legislation, which has likewise been years in the making. Ditto the House public transit bill.

“In each of those arenas you can cite progress,” he said.

But more importantly, he sees the Indiana political landscape trending in the environment’s direction.

New environmental priorities in the Barack Obama administration will infuse “cash into good things,” he said. “Money for energy efficiency, money for transit, for high speed rail, renewable energy grants. Those are things that will help to bolster the fledgling and struggling parts of the green economy, the sort of nascent green economy in the state.”

And Obama’s followers achieved a near miracle when they delivered a victory last November. “I do think that those people will help to coalesce something in the state for broader change,” he said.

And no, he added, he doesn’t believe that Hoosiers will accept being No. 49 forever.

“I’ve been impressed by how many different activists and advocates have cropped up in just the last 15 or 16 months since I’ve been here,” he said, “people who have developed a real passion and intensity for the issue and are experimenting with different ways to make change.”

Steven Higgs can be reached at .