Topeka The state today denied permits for two 700-megawatt coal-burning electric plants in western Kansas in a stunning decision that thrust Kansas in the middle of the national debate on global warming.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Roderick Bremby issued the rejection, saying, "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."
The decision on air quality permits sought by Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. prompted immediate reactions from both sides.
Sunflower Electric's President and Chief Executive Officer Earl Watkins said the company expected to pursue "legal and legislative remedies to this denial."
Watkins described Bremby's action as "capricious" because it overruled the KDHE technical staff's recommendation and was based on concerns about carbon dioxide, which is not regulated under Kansas or federal law.
"All Kansans should be alarmed by this action since the impact of this denial will be felt across many industries in Kansas, not just power plants," he said.
But Gov. Kathleen Sebelius called Bremby's order "the right decision for the well-being of the people of Kansas."
She said rejection of the coal plants will allow the state to focus on renewable energy.
The Kansas Republican Party and western Kansas legislators, however, blasted the decision and blamed Sebelius, a Democrat.
"By forcing Secretary Bremby to deny the permit she (Sebelius) has not only caved to liberal special interest groups; but she has once again shown her lack of commitment to promoting Kansas economic interests," said Kris Kobach, chairman of the state GOP.
Senate President Steve Morris of Hugoton, a Republican but often allied with Sebelius, also criticized the governor and called Bremby's decision "politically motivated."
"I am disappointed in the governor's lack of support and
leadership for western Kansas on this major development project," Morris said.
Both Morris and House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, vowed that a recently appointed special legislative committee will investigate KDHE's handling of air quality permit applications.
But environmentalists praised the developments.
Craig Volland of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club said, "Kansas, and particularly west Kansas, is now perfectly positioned to develop its abundant clean energy resources, help solve global warming, and create thousands of new family-supporting jobs."
Bremby's ruling came in one of the most controversial issues to hit state government in recent years.
Sunflower Electric and its partners proposed building the two plants near Sunflower's existing 360-megawatt coal-fired plant outside of Holcomb.
Supporters of the project said construction of the $3.6 billion plants would help the western Kansas economy and provide a sound energy source using the most efficient and clean technology in coal burning.
Opponents, many of them in Lawrence, said the project's annual emissions of 11 million tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants would harm the environment and Kansans' health for generations. The Lawrence City Commission and attorneys general of eight states opposed the project.
The opponents also said the project would stifle the growth of wind energy, but Sunflower officials said it would actually promote wind energy because of new transmission lines associated with the project.
Under the proposal, 85 percent of the energy produced at the plants would be sold to customers in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma.
The sides went back and forth over the project for more than a year -- a year in which the effects of global climate change caused by greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide became more accepted as fact.