Posted on May. 21, 2008
The Kansas City Star

Kansas Coal Plant Dust Settles, but There's More Debate Ahead

TOPEKA - The Kansas Legislature's debate on coal and electric power is over for this year, but the controversy will linger for months - on the campaign trail and in the courts.

After failing twice to override vetoes by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, House Speaker Melvin Neufeld threw in the towel Wednesday, calling off a third effort May 29 to clear the way for two coal-fired power plants in western Kansas.

Neufeld was unable to round up enough lawmakers to return to Topeka for another attempt at overriding a third Sebelius veto.

That does not mean the issue is at an end, however.

Officials of Sunflower Electric Power Corp. vowed to continue their push for the project. They hope to build two 700-megawatt coal-burning plants at the utility's Holcomb power station in southwest Kansas. They plan to meet with their utility partners early next month to chart their next move.

"I fully expect Sunflower to come back next session," said Sen. David Wysong, a Republican from Mission Hills.

The debate got national attention from environmentalists and energy advocates, thrusting Kansas into the forefront of the fossil fuels, climate change and renewable energy arguments. Power plant opponents contended that burning coal contributes to climate change, but supporters said coal is still an important energy source for the nation.

Energy promises to be a topic this summer and fall as Senate and House incumbents attempt to win re-election.

"It will be a campaign issue in the eastern part of the state, primarily in the Johnson, Wyandotte and Leavenworth areas," said Sen. John Vratil, a Republican from Leawood who supported the plants. "Candidates in those areas are going to have to explain why they supported or opposed the proposal."

He said the issue attracted a lot of interest among people in the Kansas City area, especially among a small but vocal group of environmentalists.

Wysong, who consistently voted against the project, said he received more "thank-yous" from his northeast Johnson County constituents on the coal-fired plant issue than on any issue he's voted on.

For the moment, though, Neufeld's retreat is a victory for Sebelius, who said Wednesday that she hoped the debate would spur further discussions on energy policy and efforts toward a comprehensive energy plan.

Neufeld, a strong supporter of Sunflower's project, said he also was committed to establishing a state energy policy. Sebelius has said she would have agreed to the construction of one coal-fired plant, but not two.

After a state regulator rejected the project last year because of concerns over carbon dioxide emissions and global climate change, legislative leaders vowed to strip his powers and allow the project to proceed.

Supporters have called Sunflower's proposal a major economic shot in the arm for western Kansas.

It received support from business, farm and labor organizations and a large majority of lawmakers, but not enough to overcome the governor's objections.

Sebelius vetoed three Sunflower bills this year, the latest on Friday. Two vetoes were easily rejected by the Senate, but the House could not muster the necessary 84 votes to overturn her actions.

On the second power plant bill, the House on April 4 was just one vote short of a veto-proof majority. On a May 1 override attempt, the House was four votes short. The third bill, which included numerous business tax incentives, passed with 76 votes, a majority, but still was eight votes short of a potential override attempt.

Some House members with other plans for May 29 were relieved to hear they won't have to change them.

Scott Schwab, Johnson County's Republican Party chairman, was scheduled to be with President Bush at a campaign event in the area on that day. Schwab is to be sworn in next week as a new House member from Olathe.

"I certainly would have gladly gone to Topeka to vote for the override, but I also would have missed the opportunity to be with the president," he said.

What's the Legislature's next possible move?

House leaders did introduce a resolution to authorize a lawsuit against Sebelius on the grounds that she and Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson overstepped their authority on the coal issue. That could be the next step for Republican leaders.

A lawsuit filed last year in Shawnee County by Sunflower on the same issue is working its way through the Kansas courts.

Earl Watkins, Sunflower's chief executive officer, said Roderick Bremby, the state's secretary of health and environment, disregarded the recommendation of his staff last October when he denied an air quality permit citing his emergency powers.

Watkins said emergency powers under clean air laws have always applied to existing facilities. They were never used until now in the permitting process, he added.

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