Sierra Club upset by Kansas coal deal

TOPEKA, KANSAS - A deal allowing a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas appears to have widespread support among legislators, but an environmental group has stepped up its criticism.

The Sierra Club's state chapter is now describing the agreement between Gov. Mark Parkinson and Earl Watkins Jr., the chief executive officer of Sunflower Electric Power Corp., as "a giveaway to the coal industry." Previously, the group had said it was disappointed.

Legislators have promised to move quickly to enact the agreement and hoped a handful of lawmakers would finish slogging through the details.

The deal requires legislators to pass a bill containing measures Parkinson wants to promote renewable energy.

The bill also would have a provision sought by Sunflower and its allies to limit the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's power to regulate greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Legislators from both parties and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce have praised the agreement.

"We're on the road to having a really, good comprehensive energy policy," said Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican.

However, the Sierra Club called the agreement "a significant setback" for progressive energy policy.

"The concessions made to the coal industry will greatly outweigh any so-called benefits for the state," the group said.

Hays-based Sunflower had wanted to build two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants outside the southwest Kansas town of Holcomb. But in October 2007, KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby denied Sunflower an air-quality permit citing potential carbon-dioxide emissions, which some scientists link to global warming.

Parkinson's predecessor, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, vetoed four bills to overturn Bremby's decision. Each bill tied such provisions to measures for promoting conservation and renewable energy.

The new governor began negotiating with Sunflower almost immediately upon taking office April 28, the day Sebelius resigned to become the U.S. health and human services secretary.

The new coal plant allowed by the agreement would have a generating capacity of 895 megawatts, producing enough electricity to meet the peak demands of 448,000 households. Sunflower agreed to take steps to offset the plant's potential CO2 emissions that include setting up new wind-powered generators.

The green provisions called for by the agreement are stronger than ones previously approved by legislators. They include a requirement that all utilities generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and incentives for consumers to use wind- and solar-powered generators.

But the Sierra Club described some of the conditions placed on Sunflower as "unenforceable" and questioned whether they'd reduce pollution.

Legislators in both parties expect the bill to pass easily because the agreement, signed by Parkinson and Watkins, would end the 19-month dispute between the governor's office and the utility.

But an early draft of the bill needed to close the deal contained 38 pages of technical language, and legislative leaders are having it reviewed by three senators and three House members who'd normally negotiate the final version of any energy bill. Rep. Carl Dean Holmes, leader of the House team, said the work could delay votes by the House and Senate.

"We need to have a chance to go through it," said Holmes, a Republican from Liberal.


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