Topeka The permit allowing a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas is signed by the state's top environmental regulator and not Gov. Mark Parkinson, but Parkinson's fingerprints are on the document nonetheless.
The governor and his aides say he didn't pressure Acting Secretary John Mitchell into approving the Department of Health and Environment's permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corp., which plans to build the plant outside Holcomb. Mitchell says the same, adding that last week's decision wasn't deliberately rushed to keep the new plant from falling under federal rules on greenhouse gases taking effect Jan. 2.
Environmentalists had viewed the decision and its timing as inevitable and remain suspicious that Parkinson was directly involved. But even supporters of the $2.8 billion project who take the governor and his Cabinet secretary at their word see Parkinson as important to Sunflower's getting the go-ahead.
Parkinson brokered a deal with the Hays-based company in April 2009, allowing the coal plant — getting support from Sunflower's allies in the Legislature for initiatives he favored in hopes of promoting wind and other renewable energy sources. Mitchell says other changes in state law, resulting from the governor's agreement, limited his power to reject a permit.
Without the deal, the Democratic administration might still be locked in a stalemate with Sunflower and its allies in the Republican-controlled Legislature, with no prospects for either the plant or "green" legislation.
"That initial agreement was key," said Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican who supports Sunflower's project. "We wouldn't be where we are now, that's for sure."
The plant's capacity would be 895 megawatts, enough to meet the peak demands of 448,000 households, according to one state estimate.
Sunflower supplies power for about 400,000 Kansans, and three-quarters of the new capacity, or 695 megawatts, would be reserved for a Sunflower partner, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., of Westminster, Colo. That's a sore point for many critics of its project, though supporters see it as economic development.
Environmental groups are upset about the timing of the permit — and suspect it was improperly accelerated — because Sunflower won't have to use what the federal government deems the best available technology to control greenhouse gas emissions when building the plant. Sunflower officials have said they're confident their technology would meet the requirement but worried the project would be delayed unnecessarily while the issue was reviewed.
Mitchell said the federal Environmental Protection Agency didn't give states its first guidance about the new rules until November — after the period for commenting on Sunflower's proposed plant had ended. Had the state held off, he said, "Who knows how long we would have been waiting?"
Mitchell noted that the department received Sunflower's request for a permit in January and said it started receiving — and reviewing — more than 5,600 comments in July.
"We've taken the time to review every comments submitted, and we've done the job thoroughly," Mitchell said. "When we finished our review work, we were ready to make a decision, and that's what we've done."
Sunflower officials also note that it has considered adding new coal-fired generating capacity since 2001 and in 2006 sought permission to build two, 700-megawatt plants at the Holcomb site.
In October 2007, Mitchell's predecessor, KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby, denied a permit for two plants, citing the potential greenhouse gases as a threat to public health and the environment. The governor at the time, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, backed him up, and environmentalists praised his decision.
But Sunflower's plans enjoyed bipartisan support, partly because legislators expected the project to create hundreds of construction jobs and boost the economy.
When those legislators passed bills to overturn Bremby's decision, Sebelius vetoed them. But she couldn't win passage of "green" legislation.
She resigned in April 2009 to become U.S. secretary of health and human services, elevating Parkinson from lieutenant governor to governor. Almost immediately, he struck a deal with Sunflower — a stunning Nixon-goes-to-China move by someone who'd often been seen as a more passionate advocate of renewable energy than Sebelius.
Mitchell said he believes Bremby had the authority to deny Sunflower's permit, but the secretary's discretion was narrowed by changes in Parkinson's deal. House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who supports Sunflower's project, said without the deal, the secretary might have retained a "one-man veto."
In September, a Sunflower vice president sent project supporters an e-mail accusing Bremby of "gaming the process" to delay a permit. It suggested contacting both Bremby and Parkinson to "positively change" the situation. A pro-Sunflower legislator acknowledged the "angst" and said she believed Parkinson had intervened — though his staff said he hadn't interfered.
Then, in early November, Bremby was no longer secretary. Parkinson's office said Bremby was asked to take a job helping to manage the transition to Gov.-elect Sam Brownback's administration and declined. Bremby, Parkinson and KDHE officials have not publicly discussed the reasons behind Bremby's departure.
That's left environmentalists to speculate about whether Parkinson pushed Bremby out to smooth the way for Sunflower's permit. And only days after the election, Brownback, a Republican who supports Sunflower's project, praised Parkinson in an interview with The Associated Press for "pushing aggressively" to get the project "landed."
"He's continued to do them favors," Stephanie Cole, a Sierra Club spokeswoman, said of Parkinson. "While the governor's office is trying to distance itself from the permitting process, nobody is fooled."
Parkinson has said he didn't care whether Mitchell approved or denied a permit — only that the department conducted a fair and thorough review of Sunflower's application.
"The governor has never instructed Acting Secretary Mitchell to rule a certain way on the proposed permit," Parkinson spokeswoman Amy Jordan Wooden said, echoing comments Mitchell has made.
But even without events this fall and environmentalists' questions, Parkinson would be crucial to Sunflower getting a permit, because of his deal-making in his first days as governor. That makes the permit his doing, however the project is seen and whatever his exact role.