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Kansas Coal Plants Still Caught in Standoff

Supporters of two controversial coal power plants proposed for Western Kansas say they hope to pass new legislation this week that could override an expected veto by the governor and allow the $3.6 billion project to move ahead.

The bill would need to pick up seven additional votes to make it veto-proof but a spokesperson for House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, said she was optimistic that the new version would be adopted, probably by Thursday.

“We are very hopeful that this [new] version… will be enough to garner more support,” said Sherrine Jones-Sontag.

Governor Kathleen Sebelius exercised her veto on a similar bill last Friday and her communications director said the new bill, which emerged from a house committee Monday, was not sufficiently different and would likely draw another veto.

The showdown in Kansas has emerged as a key battle over the future of coal-fired power plants in the age of global warming, that is being closely followed nation-wide.

The stakes in the outcome are high for key industry players, such as Peabody Energy which is well-positioned to supply the 5-6 million tons of coal that would be needed annually by the proposed plants.

State officials denied permits for the two 700 mega-watt plants last October, citing concerns about global warming, while supporters say there is no other realistic way to meet the state's growing electricity needs.

State officials said it would be “irresponsible” to ignore carbon dioxide’s role in climate change, and cited the Supreme Court’s landmark decision last April (Massachusetts vs. the Environmental Protection Agency) as the basis for denying permits.

There is currently no relevant federal statute that would allow carbon dioxide to be regulated as a pollutant, leaving companies to contend with various state action to address the issue.

Senate President Stephen Morris said he was also confident of veto-proof passage in the Senate but was less optimistic about getting a bill finally passed before the end of this year's legislative session next week.

“I would say the chances of getting something out before the session are probably 50-50,” said Morris.

He said failure to pass authorization would have “pretty dramatic” consequences on electricity prices in the state, which will soon have to import more expensive power from neighboring states.

Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, a Kansas co-operative, is the firm proposing the plants.

Since “all the worst features of the original bill remain ...it is most likely meet the same fate” as the previous bill, said the governor's aide Nicole Corcoran in a statement.

The governor objected to provisions that stripped the administration of the authority to block the plants based on emissions of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

“The Sierra Club and others have staked out this as sort the first battle to try to deal with coal plants - they think if they are successful in Kansas they can do away with all the coal plants any place else– that’s my impression of what their goal is,” said Morris.

Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club’s national coal campaign, says his group applauds the governor’s position as a “big step in the right direction.”

“Kansas already gets 70 percent of its electricity from coal so it actually needs other things, non-carbon fuels to balance things out – so we are not supporting any new coal,” said Nilles.

Coal Plant
Nati Harnik
Coal Plant

But, said Morris, “when you are looking at hundreds of thousands [of power plants] around the country and around the world that emit Co2, to single out this possible new plant as savior for the world is a little far-fetched for a lot of us.”

The protagonists have sharply different estimates of Kansas’ power needs.

What's more, supporters argue that if Kansas doesn't solve its own energy needs, it will have to import more expensive electricity from other states.

“We will have all the disadvantages but none of the advantages,” said Morris, including the economic development spin-offs.

If Sunflower Electric is blocked from building the plants in Kansas, another company would likely build a similar plant in Colorado to satisfy this demand, Morris insisted.

“[Plant supporters] are going to continue to twist arms and add more sweeteners in there to get the last seven legislators to switch over but they are risking severe backlash spending the entire legislative session focusing on a coal plant,” counters Nilles.

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