Now is the time for Kansas to get serious about its energy future. Although the 2008 session of the Kansas Legislature was dominated by discussion of two power plants in southwest Kansas, the session produced almost no progress toward a comprehensive energy strategy for the state.
Legislative leaders spent most of the session bartering for votes on legislation that would cancel out a permit denial for the coal-fired plants by state regulators. Various "environmental" measures were added to the bills to try to build up a veto-proof approval margin, but those add-ons were a token effort aimed at satisfying a political goal, not setting meaningful policy for the state.
The constitutionality of the last bill on the coal-fired plants is being questioned and the measure is certain to be vetoed by the governor. Because the bill was passed by a margin less than the two-thirds needed for a veto override, it's apparently "game over" for this year.
In its closing days, the Legislature also decided to dip into the area of nuclear energy, passing a bill that would allow electric utilities to raise their rates to recover development expenses for new nuclear generating facilities. Although additional nuclear capacity, especially an expansion of the existing Wolf Creek plant, may well be in the state's energy future, the measure was passed almost as an afterthought and wasn't part of any overall energy strategy.
Reliable sources of energy are vital to the state's future, both for residential uses and for economic development. Rather than taking random shots at energy-related issues, the state needs to take a comprehensive look at both the economic and environmental factors involved.
The governor has taken a step in that direction by announcing her appointments to a new Kansas Energy and Environmental Policy Advisory Group. The stated charge of the group is "to focus on ways Kansas can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions," but how energy is produced in Kansas is a key part of that equation. The group has a good representation of environmental and energy interests along with scientists from state universities. Five cabinet secretaries and several other people in top state agency positions will serve as ex-officio members.
When a group's membership represents such diverse interests as the Kansas Sierra Club, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Westar Energy, consensus sometimes can be difficult to reach. It's important that this group take an approach that is based on science, not politics, and focus on what is best for the state as a whole.
In a post-mortem of the 2008 session, Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said that the "intensive discussion" of energy issues that occurred this session will pay dividends for the state in the future. That may be true, but this session also provided an intensive example of how political agendas can derail policy progress. Between now and next January, the state and its policy makers need to regroup and redirect their efforts to an energy policy that is more progressive and less political.