Plan gains support of KDHE staff

Official decision yet to be made on permits for western Kansas project

? A proposal to build coal-burning electric plants in western Kansas gained momentum Tuesday by winning staff approval at the state environmental agency.

And legislative leaders supporting the project leaned heavily on Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Roderick Bremby to accept the staff recommendation and grant permits for the two 700-megawatt plants.

But Bremby declined to say which way he was leaning in the case, and also declined to say whether he would consider the effects of carbon dioxide emissions from the plants in his decision-making process. CO2 emissions are blamed for global warming but are not regulated.

The status of the plants was the subject of an unprecedented legislative probe into KDHE’s review of permit applications from Sunflower Electric Power Corp. for the $3.6 billion project near Holcomb.

Supporters of the project say it is needed to help the western Kansas economy, meet power needs and provide transmission lines to carry future wind-generated electricity.

But environmental groups oppose the project, saying emissions from the proposed plants would harm the environment and Kansans’ health while most of the electricity produced will be sold to out-of-state customers. The City Commission of Lawrence and attorneys general of eight states have officially opposed the project.

Legislative support

During Tuesday’s meeting, lawmakers on the newly appointed Electric Generation Review Panel urged Bremby to approve the permits. Bremby’s desk is the permits’ last stop at the state level. But proponents and opponents say the matter most certainly will end up in court.

House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said rejection of the project would wreck the western Kansas economy.

“If we want rural Kansas to move, we have to have adequate and affordable energy,” he said.

State Rep. Carl Holmes, R-Liberal and chairman of the panel, criticized KDHE for taking 15 months to act on the permits. Holmes added the plants are needed to put in place transmission lines that will enable the sale of power from Kansas to both the East and West Coasts.

“It’s going to affect the entire state if these permits are turned down,” Holmes said.

Much of the discussion with Bremby focused on a legal opinion by Attorney General Paul Morrison that said Bremby has wide latitude to reject the proposal.

Morrison’s opinion, which KDHE sought, allows the agency to consider the effect of unregulated pollutants such as carbon dioxide when granting air quality permits. In other words, Bremby could reject Sunflower’s permits “to protect the health of persons or the environment.”

When asked whether he would consider CO2 emissions, Bremby said, “That has not been determined.”

That upset several lawmakers. Holmes said if Bremby denied the project based on carbon dioxide emissions, it could lead to shutdowns of refineries, ethanol plants and other industries.

“I have a major concern with that,” he said.

Concerns for future

Tom Thompson, representing the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said he didn’t agree with Holmes.

He said Kansas needs to address regulating carbon dioxide, a major subject at both the federal and state levels.

“It would behoove them to start coming up with a plan so that Kansas is not left in the dirt by other states that are trying to deal with this issue now,” Thompson said.

The Sierra Club and Sarah and Ray Dean of Lawrence have filed lawsuits that seek to force KDHE to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

After testifying to the panel, Bremby said while it was interesting to get the perspective of lawmakers who support the plant, their comments would not affect his decision.

“This is a technical decision,” he said.

He said that under state law the agency has until Dec. 1 to issue a ruling, but that it will announce a decision later this month. “There has been no delay,” he said.

He said KDHE has been diligent in working on the case, knowing that whatever decision is made probably will be attacked in court.

While the staff has recommended approval, Bremby said that recommendation first will be considered by Ron Hammerschmidt, director of the division of environment. Bremby then will review it before making a decision on whether to accept, modify or reject the permits.

Although many legislators back the plant proposal, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has criticized it. And although he was appointed by the governor and serves as a member of her Cabinet, Bremby has said he will make an independent decision on the matter. And the governor has denied trying to exert any influence on the process.