Sebelius’ position on plants changed

Republicans say switch was political

A windmill on Shirk Farm stands across the Kansas River from the stack of the Westar Energy power plant Friday near Lawrence. The state's denial of a permit for two coal-fired power plants has intensified a debate over climate change, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is accused of flip-flopping on the issue for political purposes.

? Republicans say Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, flip-flopped on the western Kansas coal-fired plants for political purposes.

Citing concerns about climate change caused by greenhouse gases, the Sebelius administration last week denied the permits for Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build two 700-megawatt plants near Holcomb.

“Providing low-cost energy and producing jobs for Kansans should be a priority for the governor of this state, but she is evidently placing those concerns behind the agenda of special interest groups in California and Washington, D.C.,” said Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kris Kobach.

The GOP sent out a news release with pictures of flip-flops that chronicled Sebelius’ change in positions about the project.

But Sebelius’ office says the governor changed her mind as she learned more about the issues surrounding carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. The plants would have emitted about 11 million tons of CO2 per year.

“As the evidence grew, there has been a dramatic shift in the role that the government is playing to address climate change,” Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said.

In December, Sebelius supported the proposal offered by Sunflower Power Electric Corp.

She stiff-armed environmental groups that asked her to reject the Sunflower proposal and declare a moratorium on the construction of coal-fired plants in Kansas.

And in an interview then with the Lawrence Journal-World, Sebelius said she expected the plants would be built near Holcomb and that any discussion of restricting climate changing gasses such as carbon dioxide should be done on the federal level.

“I am eager to be a partner in that effort across the country, but what we know is that the Holcomb plant is likely to be built one way or the other. It’s a question of does it get built in Kansas or Oklahoma,” she said.

Environmentalists were outraged, and in the ensuing months, Sebelius said that the decision on whether to build the plants was out of her hands and would be up to Roderick Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Again, environmentalists didn’t buy it, noting Bremby worked for Sebelius in her cabinet.

But in recent months, Sebelius started criticizing the plants, saying that based on health concerns, the project wasn’t in the best interests of the state.

She was bolstered by national events. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are an air pollutant that can be regulated, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that the planet is warming and humans are the cause. And plans for 16 coal-fired plants nationwide have been canceled in recent months.

“The majority of states are moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not increase them,” Corcoran said.

“It became clear to the governor that as she continued to evaluate this information that Kansas should join the efforts of other states in rejecting unnecessary coal plants, and instead pursue opportunities for alternative clean energy, conservation measures and efficiencies,” she said.

But some say Sebelius’ shift has to do with political considerations as she ponders her options in 2010. She has been mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. Senate, and as a possible candidate on a White House ticket or in a high-ranking post in a Democratic presidential administration.

Even Bob Eye, a Lawrence attorney representing the Sierra Club, noted before the decision, that if the plants were approved in Kansas, “It would be pretty hard to operate in the top tier of the national Democratic Party with the burden of CO2, which would be attributed to this decision.”

House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said, “This is clearly to me a political decision dictated by Gov. Sebelius.”

Corcoran denied that.

She equated Bremby’s review of the plants and denial with a decision Sebelius made when she was state insurance commissioner.

In 2001, Sebelius blocked a proposed merger involving Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas despite the company and its policyholders’ approval of the sale.

“She determined it was not in the best interests of the citizens of Kansas, and that’s what Secretary Bremby has done here,” Corcoran said. “Politics and personal opinions had no place in either of these decisions.”