Coal plants denial stuns state

Rejection leads to hot reaction

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. and its partners plan to construct two 700-megawatt coal-burning electric power plants near Sunflower's current 360-megawatt facility near Holcomb, shown in this rendering. Developers of the proposed plants said Tuesday that if the Legislature doesn't approve the project by June 1, it may not go forward.

? Citing the threat of global warming, Kansas’ top environmental official on Thursday rejected permits for two 700-megawatt coal-burning electric power plants in western Kansas.

“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,” said Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bremby.

It was a stunning rejection based on the project’s expected annual emission of 11 million tons of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas that isn’t regulated on the state or national levels.

“It’s without precedent,” said Bob Eye, an attorney from Lawrence who represents the Sierra Club. “It’s just one of the most important days we’ve experienced in a long time in the environmental movement.”

Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp., which proposed the plants, and its supporters, blasted the decision.

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 to approve the permit, and was based on concerns about unregulated emissions.

“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,” Watkins said.

Sunflower and its partners planned to construct the $3.6 billion plants near Sunflower’s current 360-megawatt facility near Holcomb.

Political fallout

Western Kansas legislators promised an investigation into KDHE’s permit process and accused Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, of ignoring the region’s economic needs.

Senate President Steve Morris, of Hugoton, a Republican but often allied with Sebelius, 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.

The Kansas Republican Party fired away at Sebelius.

“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, state GOP chairman.

Decision praised

But environmentalists hailed Bremby’s decision.

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.”

Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, said the Sebelius administration has “shown vision.” He added, “Coal has been an important part of our past, but clean and renewable energy is our future.”

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.

What’s next?

As a probable court challenge geared up, Bremby said his decision will start the process of reducing CO2 emissions.

“This is consistent with initiatives under way in states leading the effort to address climate change,” he said.

In his statement, Bremby cited the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide meets the broad definition of an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Ray Dean, of Lawrence, who opposed the project and who with his wife, Sarah Dean, filed a lawsuit to stop it, said Bremby’s decision represents Kansas’ first step in grappling with climate change.

“The whole state is struggling to get itself re-oriented into the future. It is hard for everyone to do that,” Ray Dean said. “Trying to change the way we power ourselves is going to be a long, hard struggle.”

He said the public is starting to understand the effects of global climate change because of recent court cases, environmental events and decisions in other states to reject coal-fired plants.

Eye, the attorney representing the Deans and Sierra Club, agreed, saying, “Sunflower got overtaken by events, by the growing recognition of the need to deal with greenhouse gases and global warming.”

The Lawrence City Commission and attorneys general of eight states opposed the project.

The opponents had also said the plants would stifle the growth of wind energy. But Sunflower officials maintained 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.

Sebelius was critical of that. “Why should Kansans get 100 percent of the pollution and threats to our health,” she said, “while only getting 15 percent of the energy?”


Feb. 6, 2006: Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. applies to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for three 700-megawatt coal-burning generators.

Nov. 16-17, 2006: The project gets a cool reception during a public hearing in Lawrence.

Nov. 21, 2006: Lawrence City Commission votes 3-2 to formally oppose the complex.

Dec. 3, 2006: About 100 people rally outside the Capitol to oppose the project.

Dec. 15, 2006: Public comment period on the air quality permits ends. Eight states – including California, New York and Wisconsin – oppose the plants. Plant developers and many west Kansas residents support the project.

Dec. 29, 2006: Westar Energy postpones a decision on whether to build a coal-burning plant because of skyrocketing construction costs.

Feb. 3: A proposal before a Kansas House committee for a two-year ban on construction of coal-burning power plants dies.

March: Coal-burning suffers setbacks in unrelated events. Texas utility TXU announces it is for sale and reduces plans for 11 new coal-fired plants to three; and in Kansas, Westar Energy Inc., the state’s largest utility, announces plans to produce 500 megawatts of renewable energy power.

April 6: One of the three coal-fired power plants scheduled to be built is put on hold. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. announces it will delay construction of the second of two units it planned to build, deciding to pursue natural gas and renewable energy plants.

April 2: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in a 5-4 decision that greenhouse gas emissions are an air pollutant and orders the EPA to reconsider its refusal to control those emissions.

May 25: Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and leaders of the state’s major electric utilities set a goal of using conservation and energy efficiencies to reduce energy consumption 10 percent by 2020.

May 29: Sarah and Ray Dean of Lawrence file a lawsuit against KDHE, seeking to stop the Holcomb project. The suit is consolidated with a similar lawsuit by the Sierra Club.

September: Sebelius starts to criticize the project, although she maintained she would have no influence in KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby’s decision on whether to approve the proposal.

Sept. 28: Attorney General Paul Morrison issues a legal opinion that Bremby has latitude to reject the project. The opinion, which was sought by KDHE.

Oct. 8: KDHE staff recommends approval of the plants’ air quality permits. But Bremby says he has yet to make a decision on the issue.

Oct. 18: KDHE Secretary Bremby rejects the two 700-megawatt coal-fired electric power plants. Sunflower vows to pursue legal remedies.