Topeka The Kansas Senate on Thursday approved a bill to build two coal-burning plants in southwest Kansas, but a powerful U.S. congressman put the project in his crosshairs.
"If this plant is built, Kansas ratepayers may be stuck with billions of dollars in stranded assets and skyrocketing costs for power," said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Waxman called for a comprehensive review of the federal government's role in helping build coal-fired plants - and he specifically cited the project proposed by Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp.
He questioned the federal Rural Utilities Service's reasons for allowing Sunflower Electric to go forward with its plans, citing potential federal regulations on carbon dioxide emissions, and increased financial concerns about bankrolling such plants.
"I am concerned, however, that RUS may not have accounted for all the risk of substantial additional costs associated with the new plant's massive greenhouse gas emissions," Waxman wrote in a letter to James Andrew, the administrator of the Rural Development Utilities Program.
Steve Miller, a spokesman for Sunflower Electric, said Waxman's concerns about Sunflower and the project were unwarranted.
"To most observers in the cooperative (utilities) world, they would find us to be in good shape," Miller said. "It's not for us to make a judgment as to whether Congressman Waxman should or should not hold hearings. If Congress wants to investigate, investigate all they like," he said.
Meanwhile, the Kansas Senate gave overwhelming approval to a bill that would essentially require the state to approve the two 700-megawatt plants near Holcomb.
The final 33-7 vote was more than enough to override a possible veto from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who has been highly critical of the bill.
The bill was drawn up to reverse a decision last year by Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Roderick Bremby. Bremby denied the plants because of concerns about the project's 11 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
The plants are opposed by numerous environmental groups, the attorneys general of eight states, and the Lawrence City Commission.
But supporters of the plants said the $3.6 billion project and 2,400 construction jobs would boost the economy while putting up one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the nation.
The legislation would allow construction of the plants and limit Bremby's authority to stop the construction of other plants.
Lawrence's delegation split on the issue with state Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, supporting the bill, and state Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, in opposition.
Francisco said the measure increases the state's "carbon footprint" and makes no plans for "a forward looking solution."
After voting for the bill in committee, Pine said that more coal-generated power had to be part of the mix in Kansas, and that Sunflower's proposal included new technologies to offset CO2.
The House is expected to take up its version of the bill next week.
Some senators who voted for the measure said they expected negotiations to continue. Sebelius has offered to support one 660-megawatt coal-burning plant, but Sunflower has rejected that.