(This piece was originally published on December 25, 2016 in the South Bend Tribune.)
All that work to help guide South Bend, northern Indiana and the rest of the state into the environmentally sustainable future with renewable energy.
Through Steven Francis’ leadership, NIPSCO is now on track with a plan to cut coal usage in half by 2024. For the past eight years, as chairman of the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club, Francis has also led the charge to develop expansion of renewable energy projects in northern Indiana; initiate development of solar programs throughout the region and the state; helped to achieve a bipartisan unanimous vote for the South Bend Common Council’s Clean Energy Resolution; worked to get Mayor Pete Buttigieg to sign a climate protection agreement; established an Office of Energy; and expanded the city’s Sustainability Office.
And last month, the Hoosier Environment Council awarded Francis with its highest honor, naming the South Bend resident “Environmentalist of the Year.”
But the environmentalist who just won the state’s highest environmental award for working tirelessly to move South Bend and northern Indiana into a renewable, sustainable energy future lets out a nervous laugh when asked if he is “afraid” for a future under a new presidential administration that openly trumpets revitalizing the coal industry and shares a collective financial stake in the oil-drilling and pipeline industry.
“I don’t want to guess, who is head of the EPA?” Francis asks over the phone on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the same day President-elect Donald Trump named Oklahoma Attorney General and avowed climate science denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency in a Trump administration, a nod that drew the immediate ire of Francis’ Sierra Club, which issued the statement: “Having Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA is like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.”
“They’re going to try to double down on technologies,” Francis says of the incoming federal administration, “dirty technologies that will be expensive.
“Our ray of hope is that our economy is already moving in the direction of cleaner energy and fuels,” Francis says. “To move against the markets, even if they try to, it’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible to do so.”
As a result of work by Francis and a strong environmental coalition throughout the country that has emerged in recent years, Francis points out that those economic markets have already been set through costs of solar wind technologies that are now down “50 to 70 percent” from solar costs a few years ago. Gas prices also continue to hover in the $2-per-gallon range, although Francis cautiously notes that oil remains one of the most volatile energy sources when it comes to financial markets.
“Oil is down now,” he says, “but it might not stay down for long. All we need is one flare-up in the Middle East.”
Francis received his award in November at the Hoosier Environmental Council’s ninth annual “Greening of the Statehouse” forum, the state’s largest annual gathering of Indiana’s environmental community.
A former chairman of the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club, and chairman of the Sierra Club’s Political and Communications Committees, Francis’ passion for the environment began at a young age hiking in California’s Sierra Mountains. He came to South Bend in the 1980s, where he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame and studied economics, international trade and public policy. Francis took his graduate degree and taught college economics for 20 years, including courses in sustainable development, environmental economics and the impact of globalization.
Locally, Francis took the lead in helping South Bend to become one of the nation’s “Cool Cities” when former Mayor Steve Luecke signed the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement in April 2008. Because of Francis, the city continues to operate with an Office of Energy and an Office of Sustainability, and the South Bend Mayoral Green Ribbon Commission was voted into place by a bipartisan, unanimous South Bend Common Council that continues to this day under Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who more recently signed the climate protection agreement that expanded the city’s Sustainability Office.
“For me, personally,” says Terese Dorau, director of sustainability for the city of South Bend, “one of the reasons I value Steve is that he continues to stay very informed on the latest technologies and policy developments, particularly in the area of sustainable energy.”
Francis’ environmental leadership has had an even broader impact on northern Indiana, as well as throughout the state. His work with NIPSCO to push a more renewable and cost-effective energy direction with less reliance on coal has put the natural gas and electric energy provider on a planned course to cut coal usage in half or more by 2024.
“His work has been very broad-reaching, and a lot of that has been because of his leadership and sticking to things,” says Jodi Perras, the Indiana Chapter of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign representative.
“The one thing that sticks out to me,” Perras says, “is his work with NIPSCO and northern Indiana to push them to renewable energy. And just earlier this year (NIPSCO) announced plans to retire half of their coal propensity by 2024. A lot of that has been due to the work Steven has done. He’s been the one person with the Sierra Club who is most responsible for NIPSCO to get to that kind of decision.”
But while NIPSCO works to significantly reduce its coal-fired operations with plans to close Chesterton’s Bailly Generating Station by mid-2018 and a sizable portion of Wheatfield’s Schahfer Generating Station in 2023 — “That is going to be millions of pounds of CO2 that don’t get into the air anymore … replaced with renewable energy,” Perras says — the environmental community at large is sitting on pins and needles as if they are waiting for a bomb to drop once the new president-elect takes office in January.
“I think we should be very worried because we will face some historic (issues) on clean air and clean water,” Perras says. “The incoming administration has made no secret that they are tied to fossil-fuel interests, and they will try to rewrite the progress we have made.”
With so much at stake, Francis isn’t accepting his Environmentalist of the Year Award lightly.
“They’re going to try to roll back rules and regulations, but those have already gotten acceptance by the industry,” Francis says. “If they do, it will create uncertainty in the marketplace — and we’re going to fight it. I think they’re going to find that it is going to be much more difficult to do than they think.”
Jeff Harrell firstname.lastname@example.org