Lawmakers try to light fire under coal plant review

Legislative leaders eager to get state's decision

? Legislative leaders on Wednesday said if the state rejects proposed coal-burning electric plants in western Kansas, developers would move the $4 billion project 50 miles west to Colorado.

“So we would still suffer the environmental impact without any economic benefit,” House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said.

But environmentalists said there was no possibility that the proposal to build two 700-megawatt plants near Holcomb would be transferred to Colorado.

“They’ve had stronger opposition in Colorado” to coal-fired plants, said Craig Volland, a spokesman for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.

The issue came up during a meeting where Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, led formation of a panel to look into why state regulators haven’t yet approved the project sought by Sunflower Electric Power Corp.

“We feel like enough time has elapsed that we should have a decision,” Morris said.

Air quality permits for the project are being considered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Supporters of the project – pointing to recent statements by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius criticizing the plants – say they fear KDHE will reject the permits.

Plant supporters say their suspicions have been raised because KDHE has spent nearly 10 months analyzing the permit applications since the end of public hearings and comment on the proposal.

KDHE has defended its review process and said it will have a decision this month.

While Sebelius has recently shifted her position on the project from acceptance to opposition, she has said she exerted no influence on KDHE, which is headed by one of her appointed Cabinet secretaries.

House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, didn’t seem to buy it.

“I believe if the governor’s statement is she is irrelevant in the process, we’ll accept that and take control,” he said.

Environmentalists oppose the project, saying the plants’ emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants would contribute to climate change and health problems. The attorneys general of eight states and the City Commission of Lawrence have officially opposed the plants.

But Morris said the project would boost the Kansas economy and assist development of renewable energy such as wind power through the construction of electric transmission lines.

During a meeting of legislative leaders, Morris said if Kansas rejects the project it may be built right over the Kansas line in Colorado.

Steve Miller, a spokesman for Sunflower Electric, said that is a possibility.

Originally the project – a partnership between Sunflower and Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission – entailed construction of three 700-megawatt plants. But in April, Tri-State announced it would delay construction of one of the units to pursue natural gas opportunities to serve customers.

“We already lost one plant to Colorado,” Miller said. “There will become a point in time if we can’t build these plants we would lose our partners.”

Miller thanked the legislators for forming a group – the Electric Generation Review Panel – to investigate the permit process.

The six-member group has been allotted four days of meetings to get a status report on Sunflower’s permit, examine KDHE’s permit process and make recommendations on possible changes to that process.

The panel will include four Republicans and two Democrats, and be appointed by Morris, Neufeld and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. Neufeld appointed himself and state Rep. Carl Holmes, R-Liberal, who is chairman of the House utilities committee, to serve on the group.

KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby said he welcomed legislative review of “the complex technical, legal, public health, environmental and public opinion aspects that must be considered while deliberating on a permit application.”

But the Sierra Club’s Volland said formation of the review panel was “politics.”

“They’re unhappy about how long the permit process is taking, and in my opinion this is an attempt to display their displeasure to KDHE and the governor,” he said.