Topeka — A House committee rewrote part of an energy bill Wednesday in hopes of clearing the way for two coal-fired power plants in southwest Kansas despite opposition from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The Energy and Utilities Committee planned to vote on its bill Thursday, with House debate expected next week. The measure is likely to address a wide range of energy issues.
Meanwhile, the Senate Utilities Committee made plans for its own bipartisan proposal. Chairman Pat Apple, a Louisburg Republican, said he plans three days of hearings next week.
Key provisions in both measures would overturn the denial of an air-quality permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corp., which wants to build the two plants outside Holcomb, in Finney County. Other language would limit the authority of Kansas Department of Health and Environment to regulate greenhouse gases, which many scientists link to global warming.
“We’re trying to achieve some regulatory fairness,” Apple said.
KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby, a Sebelius appointee, cited the coal-fired plants’ potential carbon dioxide emissions and the dangers posed by climate change in denying an air quality permit in October 2007. Hays-based Sunflower is challenging the decision in state and federal courts, but it also has asked legislators to intervene.
Last year, Sebelius vetoed three bills to overturn Bremby’s decision and limit the secretary’s power. Sunflower and its allies mustered the two-thirds majority necessary to override her in the Senate, but not in the House.
When the House committee considered similar language Wednesday, members modified it to preserve some power for the secretary to combat immediate threats to the environment.
“It’s just a piece of a lot of things it will take to make a good law that all of us can support,” Rep. Tom Moxley, a Council Grove Republican who proposed the change, said after the committee’s meeting.
Moxley’s amendment would permit the secretary to issue emergency orders to combat an “imminent” threat to the environment. Those orders would remain in effect for three days, unless the secretary went to district court to get them extended.
But the change didn’t appear to mollify the minority of committee members who opposed last year’s bills.
“It’s pretty much the same as last year,” said Rep. Joshua Svaty, an Ellsworth Democrat. “All the provisions that were there last year are there this year.”
Energy and Utilities Committee Chairman Carl Dean Holmes, a Republican from Liberal, and other Sunflower allies expect Sebelius to veto the bill.
But Sebelius spokeswoman Beth Martino said the governor still hopes for a “a bipartisan comprehensive energy policy that truly serves the needs of entire state.”
“At this point, it is premature to comment on any specific proposal when numerous ideas are still being discussed in committee,” Martino said.
Apple said his committee’s bill, to be introduced Thursday, will include language similar to Moxley’s. He said he’s working with Sens. Mike Petersen, a Wichita Republican, and Janis Lee, a Kensington Democrat.
He said their comprehensive bill that also will include provisions to set new energy efficiency standards for state buildings and encourage the use of wind power and other renewable resources. It also will tie the state to federal emissions standards — preventing a secretary from getting more strict.
“We want to have a policy that Kansas is not disavantaged by,” he said.
Many legislators view Bremby’s decision to block Sunflower’s project as arbitrary and contend it made environmental regulation in Kansas uncertain. On Monday, the Department of Health and Environment attempted to address the criticism by issuing a “guidance document” saying CO2 will be a factor in decisions about air-quality permits only when new power plants are involved.
But Bremby’s critics were unimpressed and said the real problem is that an administrator shouldn’t be able to set such policy on his own.
“The guidelines submitted by KDHE were nothing more than a political game, which clarifies the need of a legislative fix to restore regulatory fairness and the public’s trust of KDHE,” said Jeff Glendening, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.