Monday, October 22, 2007

A good day for Kansas

Last Thursday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment denied a permit to Sunflower Electric for 2 proposed coal power plants near Holcomb, KS. In the words of Secretary Roderick Bremby: “After careful consideration of my responsibility to protect the public health and environment from actual, threatened or potential harm from air pollution, I have decided to deny the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation application for an air quality permit.”

This decision was a bombshell across the state of Kansas. Almost everyone I know, and I know some people, assumed that the decision would be to allow the construction of the new coal power plants. The KDHE technical review actually recommended issuing the permit, despite protests from numerous individuals, organizations, and the Fish and Wildlife service.

Earl Watkins, Sunflower’s president and CEO was not happy (.pdf): “We are disappointed with the Secretary’s arbitrary and capricious action. It’s clear the KDHE technical staff followed the law in its treatment of Sunflower’s air permit application when the staff recommended that the permit be issued. All Kansans should be alarmed by this action, since the impact of this denial will be felt across many industries in Kansas, not just power plants.” Watkins went on to imply that Sunflower wouldn’t invest in the algae technology they had previously been planning to produce ethanol and other biofuels. Watkins characterized the decision as political. Steve Miller, a spokesperson for Sunflower, was quoted as saying investors would gather a “truckload of lawyers” and “find out if there’s a way around this or to overturn this.” As he put it: “Our main thing is we think this was an arbitrary and capricious decision.”

State legislators were quick to pile on as well, directing their wrath at the Democratic Governer:

“I am disappointed in the governor’s lack of support and leadership for western Kansas on this major development project. I am hopeful this effort will not live or die on Secretary Bremby’s decision.”

-- Steve Morris, R- Hugoton

“His [Bremby’s] action today sends a clear message that economic development is not welcomed in rural Kansas. This is clearly to me a political decision dictated by Governor Sebelius.”

-- House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls

“As despicable as I find the national Republican Party, I find the leaders of the Kansas Democratic party even more despicable. Anyone who would throw a 3.5 billion-dollar investment away when it offered the citizens of this great state an opportunity to show the world what can be done with one of the most innovative energy programs ever conceived does not and will not get one minute of my time.”

-- Lon Wartman, who resigned as Finney County’s Democratic chairman.

"By forcing Secretary Bremby to deny the permit she (Sebelius) has not only caved to liberal special interest groups, but she has once again has shown her lack of commitment to promoting Kansas economic interests."

-- Kris Kobach, Republican state chairman (cites: 1, 2)

But this did not really reflect the range of opinions regarding the KDHE’s decision:

“I am encouraged by this decision, because protecting the people of Kansas – in every corner of our state – has always mattered more to me than anything else.”

-- Governor Sebelius

“moving forward it is critical that members of our administration and the Kansas Legislature continue to aggressively pursue renewable energy sources, such as wind generation. These opportunities will not only allow our state to lead the nation in clean energy, but will provide much-needed economic opportunities for rural Kansas.”

-- Janis Lee, D- Kensington

“The Holcomb plant would have locked the state into another 50 years of dirty, polluting coal energy and eliminated the market for the renewable forms of energy that are the future.”

-- Craig Volland, Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club

Based on this decision, we can say Kansas is becoming part of the solution rather than becoming part of the problem of global warming. It's a tough decision, but the right decision.”

-- Bob Eye, Topeka attorney for the Sierra Club

In my opinion, this was the best decision for Kansas. The supporters of this initiative are attempting to re-cast the issue as one of political development, and even in terms of Eastern Kansas dictating to Western Kansas, but these are misguided arguments. Allow me to explain:

1. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is not mandated to promote economic development, but rather to protect the health and environment of Kansans. As a result, any argument based on economic development should be ignored. I’ve found no one arguing that the coal plant won’t produce greenhouse gases, and I’ve seen no evidence anywhere that greenhouse gases aren’t causing global climate change. Further, the citizens of Kansas were given an extraordinarily long time to make comments on this proposed permit, and based on the 117 page response to comments that KDHE generated, many of those comments expressed doubts that the EPA/KDHE air quality standards were strong enough to protect Kansans’ health. The only arguments in favor of the new coal plant were financial, but it isn’t the Kansas Department of “Making the Rich Richer.”

2. Individuals from Western Kansas (some of my in-laws among them) are trying to cast this as Eastern Kansas stifling Western Kansas development. My initial feeling is that Western Kansas is making a straw man argument here. Take a look at this map (.pdf) (or this one) showing the distribution of Kansans. Notice anything? The vast majority of Kansas lives in the Eastern half of the state. In fact, the top 3 metropolitan areas of the state (Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita) make up over half of the state’s total population. So does Eastern Kansas have a bigger say in what goes on in the state: Of course it does. Last I checked, this was still a democracy.

Consider this, in the U.S. Senate, 51 representatives are voted in by just 17% of the U.S. population. I haven’t dug through all the numbers to find out, but I suspect a similar effect occurs in Kansas. I imagine the # of citizens per representative in Kansas is smaller in the west than in the east, and therefore the west is over-represented in the government.

Even if I were inclined to bicker over the financial aspects of this project, I suspect they would all come out bad for Kansas. The energy this coal plant would produce would be sent primarily to Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Just 15% of the proposed output from this plant would be going in-state, yet, 100% of the pollution would be occurring in-state. Air pollution from coal plants has been linked to increased infant mortality and asthma attacks, while filling the air with NOx, SOx, mercury, lead, and a host of other compounds that are known to cause human health concerns. The financial analyses done previously don’t really take these health effects into account, but if you think they don’t matter, you’re not paying attention.

All-in-all, I think this is a great day for Kansas. Secretary Bremby has drawn a line in the sand, and I hope we can defend it. The onus is now on the power industry to come up with some real solutions to our power needs, even if those solutions do not necessarily generate the most profit possible.

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