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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal v. Climate in Kansas

Air Date: Week of

Kansas is on the frontlines in a fight over coal-fired power and climate change. We’ll hear from the Kansas official who took a stand against coal and its greenhouse gas emissions as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us what’s behind the battle and what it might mean for the rest of the country.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Kansas – the very heart of Heartland America – finds itself on the frontline of a fight over climate change and coal. It’s one of the many states wrestling with the tough issue: it needs more electricity, but officials are concerned about the greenhouse gases produced by coal-fired power plants. In Kansas, they’re taking a stand against coal, blocking permits for two new power plants. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has been following the story and Jeff, it seems this story has turned into a real showdown, huh?

YOUNG: This is a high-stakes standoff. The company, Sunflower Electric, and its supporters say we need this power and this is a three and a half billion-dollar project that would create lots of jobs.

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and her environment secretary say ‘well, Kansas doesn’t really need all that electricity – most of it would go out of state.’ And a 1400 megawatt coal plant would put out a lot of greenhouse gases – about 11 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. So far, neither side has blinked. And electric utilities and lawmakers all around the country are watching to see how this is going to play out.

GELLERMAN: Well, tell me more about the Governor’s decision, Jeff. What’s the rationale for blocking the permit?

YOUNG: Well, in Kansas the state’s health and environment secretary makes the decisions on permits for power plants, and that’s a man named Rod Bremby. Bremby’s staff had approved the company’s permit – they just looked at the traditional air pollution concerns. But Bremby also looked at the science on climate change. He looked at the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling from last year that said greenhouse gases are pollutants under the law, too. And Bremby told me that he felt he just could not ignore those things.

BREMBY: My staff did their job. They did an excellent job in reviewing the permit in the traditional sense. But because of a Supreme Court decision, because of additional information about climate change, I felt that it was my obligation, if you will, to make this decision. And we’re talking 40, 50 years of producing some 11 million tons of CO2 a year. And so, that’s just a little vantage point from which I decided that, no, we needed to act on this. I made a decision to say, we will deny this permit.

GELLERMAN: Wow, that’s a big deal. So, how did the power industry respond?

Kansas Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bremby.(Courtesy of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment)

YOUNG: Well, this is not an industry that’s accustomed to hearing ‘no.’ And so they fought back with kind of a nasty ad campaign aimed at the governor funded by Peabody Coal. They also lobbied very heavily at the statehouse. The Republican-controlled legislature responded to that with a bill that would let Sunflower build its power plants, and would strip Secretary Bremby of his authority to make those kinds of decisions about CO2 emissions.

GELLERMAN: Hmm. And the governor just vetoed that, right?

YOUNG: That’s right. Governor Sebelius, she’s a Democrat, she vetoed the bill. She also offered a compromise that would allow a smaller coal power plant if the company also committed to more wind power, more energy efficiency, things like that. The company says that’s too expensive. They serve a rural area with a lot of senior citizens, people on low-incomes – they want to go with the cheapest fuel that’s available. A lot of people I spoke to say this is probably heading for the state supreme court.

GELLERMAN: Now Jeff, you mentioned that a lot of people around the country are watching this. What do you think they’ve learned so far?

YOUNG: Yeah, you know what Kansas is going through – it goes right to the core of some really big questions. You know, sure, coal is cheap, but aren’t we just ignoring the environmental costs? And just how are we going to meet both energy demand and the challenge of climate change? These are big, big issues. So I asked a spokesperson for Sunflower Electric – his name is Steve Miller – what he would tell other power companies.

MILLER: Well, there’s no question that if you were to build a coal-fired power plant, you’re gonna have more lawsuits than you can know what to do with. I think they just have to decide how hard they want to fight for low-cost power. That’s really it. Because it’s gonna be a horrible fight, a very emotional fight, it’s gonna be a very expensive fight. And you just have to be able to measure when that ceases to be the right thing to do for your customers.

GELLERMAN: Hmm. Voice of experience. Sounds like he’s a little battle weary there, Jeff. What about the environment secretary, Mr. Bremby. What does he say is the lesson from all this?

YOUNG: Well, for Mr. Bremby, the main lesson is that we need federal action.

BREMBY: You know, if the EPA had been responsive to the Supreme Court’s ruling, I don’t know that we would be here. This has been a very contentious issue for Kansas. And we really shouldn’t be here. No state should be placed in this position. It’s important now that the federal government step up and try to fill that breach, so that we don’t find more conflict at the local level.

YOUNG: And, you know, Bruce, the interesting thing about that point is both sides are in agreement there. Everyone I spoke to, they all say, ‘we need Washington to act on this.’ Now, they might not want the same kind of action out of Washington, but it’s pretty clear that the uncertainty around all of this has just become paralyzing. State lawmakers can’t set good policy, industry can’t make good investment decisions unless they know what the rules are.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth’s Jeff Young in Washington. Jeff, thanks a lot.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.

GELLERMAN: You can learn more about the Kansas showdown at our website, and while you’re there, check out our series “Generating Controversy—the Changing Climate of Coal.” It’s all at LOE dot ORG.



To read the veto and compromise offer from Governor Kathleen Sebelius, click here

Kansas Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bembry’s testimony before Congress

Sunflower Electric Power

LOE’s series on coal, “Generating Controversy”


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