Senate panel reworks bill on coal-fired plants

? A Senate committee endorsed an energy bill Monday that would allow two coal power plants in southwest Kansas after stripping out what would have been the state’s first limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

The Utilities Committee’s 6-2 vote sent the measure to the full Senate for debate, probably later this week.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius criticized the rewritten bill.

“Unfortunately, this bill is moving in the wrong direction,” Sebelius said in a statement. “Much of what could have been considered as an attempt to offset massive amounts of new carbon in the atmosphere has been removed.”

Committee members said the CO2 rules – and a proposed carbon tax for noncomplying utilities – would have prevented the bill’s passage. Some critics, including Sebelius, argued the rules were far too lax, but some conservative legislators and anti-tax groups opposed enacting any rules or carbon tax.

“It’s obvious that there is not interest in this building and apparently in this state at this time to look at mitigating CO2,” said Sen. Janis Lee, of Kensington, the committee’s top Democrat.

But if the bill passes in its new form, Sebelius appears almost certain to veto it, though she didn’t discuss her plans in her statement.

The governor opposes provisions allowing Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build the two coal-fired power plants next to an existing plant outside Holcomb in Finney County. The $3.6 billion project has been blocked since October by Sebelius’ secretary of health and environment.

Sebelius also opposes sections in the bill limiting the secretary’s ability to deny air-quality permits for other proposed power plants.

“The legislation does nothing to promote wind energy, conservation or efficiency measures, and it strips the secretary of emergency authority to protect the environment and the health of Kansans,” she said.

Seeking broad support

Committee Chairman Jay Emler has said he, Lee and their House counterparts included the CO2 rules and proposed carbon tax in the bill hoping to get the support of two-thirds majorities in both chambers. That would allow them to override a Sebelius veto.

“I guarantee you the governor will veto this, but I have no idea what the votes are as far as an override,” Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, said after the committee’s meeting.

The committee also removed provisions imposing energy efficiency standards for new state and public school buildings and banning coal-fired “merchant” power plants.

“I think we need to focus on the issue here of the Holcomb power plant,” said Sen. Mark Taddiken, a Clifton Republican. “That was the intent of many legislators.”

The House Energy and Utilities committee planned to discuss its own version of the legislation today. It initially scheduled debate for last Friday, but postponed it under orders from House Speaker Melvin Neufeld.

Neufeld, an Ingalls Republican, said the House version – identical to the Senate committee’s original bill – didn’t have enough support and needed to be rewritten. Other GOP leaders agreed with him.

Key changes

Both bills were drafted by the same four legislators, the chairmen of the House and Senate utilities committees and their top Democrats.

Each would have made Kansas among a handful of states to attempt to limit carbon dioxide emissions, which many scientists link to global warming. Those rules would apply to new power plants, no matter what kind of fuel they used to turn their electric-generating turbines.

For new coal-fired power plants, the CO2 allowed would be less than the emissions of any existing Kansas plant in pounds per megawatt hour. The amount allowed would drop 20 percent after a new plant has been in operation a year.

But utilities would have been able to “offset” – lower their emissions on paper – if they’ve invested in a wind farm since 2000 or in technology to capture and store CO2 emissions, or if they develop conservation or beautification programs.

Utilities failing to meet the emissions standards would have faced a tax of $3 for every ton of excess emissions.

Sebelius and environmentalists argued that the rules would have been so generous that Sunflower’s new plants would be treated as if they produced zero CO2 emissions, even though their projected output is 11 million tons a year – still less per megawatt hour than any existing Kansas plant.

“When this bill was written, the intent was to build Holcomb,” said Tom Thompson, a Sierra Club lobbyist. “This was a bad bill to begin with, and it’s still a bad bill.”