Flip the switch

Encouraging energy production in western Kansas could help revitalize the region's economy.

There’s an all-too-common expression used in shrinking western Kansas towns these days: If you’re the last one to leave, be sure to turn off the lights.

State legislators this session will have a couple of chances to make that bit of commentary on the area’s declining population a little less apropos.

The first opportunity concerns a $3.5 billion proposal to build a new electric power plant complex near Holcomb. The project surely will draw some criticism from environmentalists because it would be fueled by coal, but legislators should find a way to support the project. Advanced technology can significantly reduce emissions from coal-powered plants. Lawmakers certainly must be good environmental stewards, but the positives far outweigh the negatives of this project.

The second opportunity concerns a series of energy-related bills championed by the Select Joint Committee on Energy, chaired by Lawrence Rep. Tom Sloan. The House-Senate committee has proposed more than a dozen bills, with many of them providing incentives for alternative energy production in Kansas. Several specifically target increased ethanol and biodiesel production, which has significant potential to help Kansas farmers. Other bills include help for the wind energy movement, which already is providing additional income to some landowners in western Kansas.

No legislator probably spends more energy thinking about energy issues than Sloan. He and his fellow committee members should be congratulated for challenging the state to once again become a leader in energy production.

Sloan’s bills, coupled with the Holcomb power plant project, give legislators an opportunity this session to make a powerful statement concerning Kansas’ efforts to be the energy capital of the Midwest. It would be wise for legislators to get even more specific and focus their energy efforts in western Kansas.

Converting more of western Kansas’ economy into energy production – specifically electrical generation and alternative power production – would be a savvy strategy. After all, two of western Kansas’ larger assets are wide open spaces and sparse population. That combination doesn’t work well for many businesses, but it can be a winning formula for energy producers. And it seems nearly certain that energy production will be a good business for years to come. America’s appetite for electrical devices remains as strong as ever, and it is becoming clearer each day the dangers of being overly reliant on foreign oil.

Perhaps most importantly, western Kansas needs a new strategy. It is important that the state come up with a vision that reduces the region’s reliance on irrigation agriculture. Energy production should receive strong consideration not only because of the taxes and jobs it creates, but because it is compatible with agriculture and would bring new dollars into Kansas through the energy being exported to other states.

A strong commitment to become a major energy producer could help the entire state, but it especially could provide a needed boost to western Kansas. And it would be nice for residents of the region to be in the business of turning the light switch on, rather than off.