by Eric Barton
It has been nearly a week since Kansas made national headlines for rejecting a power plant because it would add to global warming – and the political fallout has been immediate and intense.
When Rod Bremby, the secretary for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, denied an air permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corporation to drastically expand a coal-fired power complex in western Kansas, outrage flared across the state.
Sunflower CEO Earl Watkins said in a statement, “We are disappointed with the Secretary’s arbitrary and capricious action” and vowed legal action to get the project back on track.
Kansas House Speaker Melvin Neufeld said the ruling “sends a clear message that economic development is not welcome in rural Kansas.” Fellow Republican and Senate President Steve Morris added, “By giving in to pressure from ill-informed but vocal opposition, Secretary Bremby has derailed this $4 billion project.”
Morris also directed his anger toward Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who in recent weeks had voiced her concerns about the plant’s environmental impact. Kris Kobach, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, followed Morris’ lead, saying the governor "has once again shown her lack of commitment to promoting Kansas economic interests.”
It wasn’t just the GOP jumping up and down, either — even some Democrats were upset by the decision. Lon Wartman, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party for Finney County – where the existing Sunflower plant would have been expanded – resigned his post in disgust over the party’s lack of leadership. “Anyone who would throw a $3.5 billion investment away … does not and will not get one minute of my time," he said in a statement.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, viewed the permit rejection as a watershed moment in the fight against global warming. Bruce Nilles, a lawyer who directs the Sierra Club’s national coal campaign, wrote in an e-mail to supporters, “After an epic, year-long struggle to stop the Sunflower coal plant in western Kansas – we prevailed... This is a remarkable outcome (and still unbelievable). Wow.”
With so many officials condemning and congratulating the KDHE, the agency could have whipped up plenty of wind power with all that blustering. But now that the immediate firestorm has passed, Kansans are left with a bigger question mark: Will the state slap restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions?
In his denial of the Sunflower permit, Bremby made clear that carbon dioxide played a role in his decision.
“I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing,” Bremby said in his statement.
“KDHE will work to engage various industries and stakeholders to establish goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and strategies to achieve them,” he added.
Legislators, including Morris and Neufeld, howled at the prospect of such reductions, saying they would kill economic development. The Sunflower ruling loosened the lips of the governor, too. Bremby’s decision nudged her opinion when it comes to global warming, as well.
In July, while the KDHE was still considering the permit, The Pitch asked Sebelius if she was concerned that adding two large-scale coal-fired plants would increase Kansas carbon emissions. She declined to answer. When we asked her if she’d like to see the state craft regulations for the global warming gas, she said that was the job of the federal government, not the state.
“Creating a patchwork of regulatory interventions across the nation on a state-by-state basis is not an optimal approach to this national and, ultimately, international problem,” her press secretary, Nicole Corcoran, said in a written response to The Pitch.
But now, Sebelius is starting to sound very interested in her state’s contribution to the international problem. “These coal plants would have produced 11 million additional tons of carbon every year – 550 million tons over the lifetime of the project,” the governor noted in a statement praising Bremby’s decision. “While there are some innovative technologies proposed as companions to these coal plants, none will significantly diminish the carbon impact of two new coal plants in our state.”
Sebelius also noted, “Why should Kansans get one hundred percent of the pollution and threats to our health while only getting 15 percent of the energy?” Funny – we asked her the very same question in July, and she didn’t answer that one, either.
But outside the governor’s mansion and the state Legislature, the argument over what to do about CO2 may come to a head in a Topeka courtroom in coming months, thanks to a couple of longtime Lawrence environmentalists.
This spring, Sarah and Raymond Dean filed suit against the KDHE in Shawnee County District Court, arguing that it was the state’s responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide. They pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that CO2 is an air pollutant and should be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. If the highest court in the land says CO2 is dangerous, the Deans reasoned, then the state of Kansas should set up guidelines to deal with the stuff, too.
For the past six months, the KDHE has been fighting to get the case tossed -- with Sunflower and several other power corporation joining the agency as interveners. In filings for the KDHE, legal counsel Yvonne Anderson has argued that there’s no legal reason for the state agency to contend with CO2 and “the decision in [the Supreme Court] has no direct effect on state regulation of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.”
Apparently, Bremby didn’t get that legal memo. In a complete turnaround, Bremby specifically cited that same case in denying the Sunflower permit. He even mentioned the same state statute the Deans’ lawyers say empowers the KDHE to address the global warming pollutant. And Bremby even implied that the KDHE might be willing to do exactly what the Deans are demanding: set up statewide rules for CO2.
If you ask Reid Nelson, one of the Deans’ lawyers, Bremby took a page right out of their legal playbook. “They followed our lead on that, intentionally or not,” Nelson says.
So what does that mean for the lawsuit, which is set for a hearing on November 16? Joe Blubaugh, spokesman for the KDHE, didn’t have an immediate answer. As for the Deans, Nelson says the lawsuit won’t be satisfied by Bremby’s press release assurances.
“KDHE looks like it’s having some kind of change of heart,” Nelson says. “But one way or another we want to be involved in creating statewide regulations on CO2.”
And if that happens, get ready for a second round of political fireworks that will make the power plant fallout look like a couple of kids burning sparklers in the driveway. – Carolyn Szczepanski