Ruling Points to New Limits on Greenhouse Gas
By CHRIS GREEN
Harris News Service, 10/19/2007
TOPEKA -- A regulator's decision Thursday to block new coal-fired power plants based on global warming concerns signals a landmark change in state policy.
Officials from Kansas utilities expressed uncertainty on the potential consequences of the ruling by Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Despite the action, coal still produces nearly 75 percent of the state's electricity. More than a dozen other coal-powered plants, some of which have been running since the 1950s, still operate in the state.
"It's unprecedented," Stuart Lowry, executive vice president and general counsel for the Kansas Electric Cooperatives, said of Bremby's decision. "We're trying to understand what it really means and respond in a way that's best for the consumer."
Bremby denied Hays-based Sunflower Electric's request for air-quality permits for two 700-megawatt generators near Holcomb, citing concerns that carbon dioxide from the plants would exacerbate climate change and threaten human health.
In a news release, Bremby called the decision a first step in emerging policy to address existing and future carbon dioxide emissions in Kansas.
"KDHE will work to engage various industries and stakeholders to establish goals for reducing carbon dioxide and strategies to achieve them," Bremby said, noting it was consistent with actions in other states.
Current state and federal laws don't regulate C02 as a pollutant, and Sunflower representatives boasted their plants would meet or exceed all existing environmental standards.
But Bremby said he couldn't ignore emerging information about the effects of CO2, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the gas to be considered an air pollutant.
Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, an environmental research organization in Salina, said that verdict signaled a desire for state policymakers to move toward an economy more reliant on renewable energy.
"I think it will increase our imagination about the possibilities," Jackson said.
However, Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller said Bremby's decision should be of concern to the entire energy industry.
"If he's going to regulate CO2, it will affect other emitters of CO2, ethanol plants being one of those."
Lowry said the ruling appeared to be a strike against coal as energy, pushing utilities across the state toward other, more expensive forms of energy, such as wind. That ultimately could result in consumers paying more to power their homes and appliances, he said.
"The effects of this will be felt by everyone," said Lowry, whose group consists of 30 electric cooperatives with about 400,000 ratepayers across the state.
But a representative of the state's largest utility, Topeka-based Westar Energy, said it wasn't clear how the decision would affect her company, which operates coal-fired plants in Douglas, Pottawatomie and Shawnee counties.
"It's something we'll be watching and following," Westar spokeswoman Erin Dehn said. "As far as what will happen in the future with regulations, we'll just wait and see."
In fact, even before Bremby announced his decision, some utilities in the state were making efforts to expand their sources beyond coal.
Westar put plans for an additional coal-burning plant on hold earlier this year, citing rising construction costs. They recently announced investments in three wind farms and have built a new natural gas-fired peaking plant near Emporia.
"We're working on ways to conserve energy and new wind farms," Dehn said. "Right now, that's kind of our focus. We'll continue to push energy conservation and help our customers conserve."
KCP&L spokesman Matt Tidwell said his company is trying to stay ahead of the curve, treating coal as only one source for energy production. The company is building a new coal plant in northwest Missouri, but in an agreement with the Sierra Club they also are pursuing wind investments and an aggressive energy-efficiency plan.
"What we've tried to do is be ahead of regulations," Tidwell said.
Harris News Service, Correspondent Sarah Kessinger, and the Associated Press contributed to this story.