It would be nice to think that a decision on permits for new coal-fired power plants in western Kansas will be based on science and the best interests of the state rather than on politics.
Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the direction this issue is taking.
In the last week, the question of whether Sunflower Electric Power Corp. should be allowed to build two coal-fired plants near Holcomb has taken on a decidedly political and confrontational tone. It is being portrayed as a battle of east vs. west with a healthy dose of partisan politics on the side.
Expressing frustration about how long the Kansas Department of Health and Environment was taking to make a decision on the permits, legislators appointed an interim committee to look into the application process. The new Electric Generation Review Panel had a narrow agenda and some well formed opinions on this issue. All six of its members already have expressed support for the Sunflower proposal.
Committee members didn't hesitate to take KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby to task for not acting more quickly. It was clear, however, that quick action wasn't the only goal; it was quick approval of a project they see as having great economic benefits for western Kansas. KDHE's charge, however, is to assess the environmental and health aspects of the proposals, not its economic benefit.
The proposed coal-fired plants are the center of a political and environmental tornado. Proponents say they won't harm the environment and will allow Sunflower to invest in transmission lines that could expand wind power generation in the state. Opponents fear the effects of emissions from the plant and point out that most of the power it will generate will be sold to customers in other states.
Western Kansas interests bitterly claim that people in eastern Kansas are trying to use environmental arguments to block a vital economic boost to an area that desperately needs it. There also is the underlying political tension between Republican legislators and the Democratic governor who appointed the KDHE secretary and has expressed reservations of her own about the project.
It's not a great atmosphere in which to make a thoughtful decision about an important issue. Bremby, a former assistant city manager in Lawrence, is in a tough spot; he will be damned by some if he rejects the plan and damned by others if he approves it.
There is no question that building the plant would be an economic shot in the arm for Holcomb and the surrounding area, but it's also a fact that discharges from any coal-fired plant will release at least some pollution into the air. If the new plants are approved, Sunflower officials should make it their mission to make those plants the cleanest-operating, least-polluting facilities in the nation.
Protecting our environment is in the long-term interests of the state, and it's worth considering whether Kansas might be better off finding ways to encourage development of wind power and other "clean" energy sources that could provide the same economic benefits for rural areas of the state as additional coal-fired plants.
KDHE is charged with assessing the best information available and making the best decision possible for the people of Kansas. It's not an easy job and political and personal accusations and posturing only make it more difficult.