Bill allowing Kansas coal plants clears Legislature

TOPEKA, KANSAS - A bill allowing two coal-fired power plants in southwest Kansas won final legislative approval, but supporters failed again to generate the support they need to override an expected veto by the governor.

The House approved the bill, 74-48, a day after the Senate approved it on a 31-7 vote. The bill goes next to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who objects to provisions that would overturn an October 2007 decision by her administration that prevented Sunflower Electric Power Corp. from building the plants in Finney County.

Rod Bremby, her secretary of health and environment, denied Sunflower an air-quality permit, citing the plants' potential carbon dioxide emissions.

Sebelius also opposes provisions limiting the secretary's power to regulate greenhouse gases linked by many scientists to global warming and preventing the secretary from using emergency powers to deny an air-quality permit in the name of protecting the environment or public health.

Those provisions are tied to others designed to encourage the development of wind farms and other renewable energy sources.

Sebelius considers the "green" provisions too weak and won't accept anything that allows the two plants and restricts the secretary's power.

"I think Governor Sebelius has been very clear about her intentions on the coal bill," spokeswoman Beth Martino said after the House vote. "That said, she will closely review this bill once it reaches her desk."

Bremby's decision sparked multiple legal challenges from Sunflower, its partners and its allies. Three are before the Kansas Supreme Court, and in November, the company filed a federal lawsuit.

Sunflower also asked the Legislature to intervene, and many members argue that Bremby overstepped his authority, particularly when the state has imposed no regulations on greenhouse gases.

"What I consider the heart of this bill re-establishes the rule of law in the state of Kansas," said Rep. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican.

Sunflower said the bill would create jobs, develop renewable energy and provide regulatory certainty "in a time when they are desperately needed."

But Tom Thompson, a Sierra Club lobbyist, said many legislators don't appear to be serious renewable energy.

"It is time for Kansas to become a clean energy leader to bring jobs to Kansas and to be part of the battle to fight global warming," he said.

Last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved three similar bills with bipartisan majorities, but the Democratic governor vetoed them. Each time, Sunflower's allies had enough support to override a veto in the Senate but fell short in the House.

Overriding a veto requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers, or 27 of 40 votes in the Senate and 84 of 125 in the House.

Supporters of the bill fell 10 votes short in the House; three members didn't vote.

But neither side saw the action as a true test of Sunflower's support.

"The override's the game," said Rep. Joshua Svaty, a Ellsworth Democrat who voted against the bill.

Supporters of the measure have portrayed it as an attempt at comprehensive energy policy. Such a policy, they argue, must include both renewable energy and new coal plants, because Kansas gets the bulk of its electricity from coal plants.

They also note that the bill sets standards requiring that renewable sources account for 20 percent of utilities' generating capacity by 2020 and contains provisions to encourage consumers to start using their own small wind- or solar-powered generators.

"It's the greenest thing we've teed up in a long time," said House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who supported the bill.

But critics, including environmentalists, said the bill isn't green because it allows Sunflower's plants.

"This is legislation for one company in the state of Kansas," said Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat who voted against it. "This is all about coal — two coal plants being built."



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