Posted on May. 11, 2009
The Kansas City Star

Coal-Plant Decision Fires Up Critics

After only six days in office, Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson did last week what state legislators couldn't do in two years: resolve the rancorous row over Western Kansas coal plants.

But the Democrat also succeeded in angering some in his own party and environmental groups that had viewed Parkinson as their champion. After all, they'd repeatedly fought off the coal plant project, then saw Parkinson give in for environmental concessions they view as inconsequential.

The Parkinson compromise allows Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build one 895-megawatt coal plant near Holcomb, Kan. It's not the two 700-megawatt plants that Sunflower wanted, but after years of fighting Parkinson's predecessor, utility executives jumped at the offer.

In exchange, Sunflower agreed to invest in more wind power and energy efficiency, and the state Legislature agreed to pass modest measures to encourage renewable energy.

The deal was brokered in secret and announced only after it was signed. Parkinson said confidentiality was necessary because it involved a settlement of the lawsuit Sunflower filed when the state denied its permits.

But while Parkinson touted the concessions made by Sunflower, many were planned by the utility before the deal was struck. Others appear to have limited value to the state.

The deal requires Sunflower to build two new transmission lines to help export Kansas wind energy westward. Sunflower, however, already had planned to build the transmission lines even without the compromise.

Also, Sunflower promised to use "supercritical" technology that burns coal more efficiently and with less pollution. Sunflower, however, already had planned to use state-of-the-art pollution controls in their original project proposal.

And the new plant will create fewer emissions " 6.67 million tons of carbon a year compared to 10.7 million tons " but turns out the difference is due to the size of the plant, not new technology.

What's more, as part of the deal, Sunflower promised to decommission two oil-fired power plants in Garden City. Yet the outdated oil-burners haven't been used in more than 20 years, according to Sunflower.

Sunflower CEO Earl Watkins lauded the compromise as an example of responsible government. "It's awfully easy to criticize government," Watkins said. "But I would say this is a moment of pride."

Environmental groups took a dimmer view.

"If you're going to trade, trade up," said Nancy Jackson, director of the Lawrence-based Climate and Energy Project. "This isn't trading up."

The Parkinson deal also strips the state's top regulator of the discretion he used to reject the plants in 2007. Environmental groups maintain that change will allow other utilities to build additional coal plants as long as they meet federal environmental guidelines.

Indeed, the deal allows Sunflower to apply for a permit for a second plant in two years - though company executives say there's currently no plan to seek a second plant.

Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat who opposed the coal plants, thinks Parkinson gave away too much for something the state didn't need. She said Kansas can meet its expected energy demands for years, and noted that most of the plant's power would serve out-of-state customers.

And she wonders whether Sunflower even has to live up to its end of the bargain. "Is there any way to enforce this?" Francisco asked.

Sally Howard, Parkinson's chief counsel, assures that the compromise gives the state the authority to enforce it.

Parkinson, meanwhile, insists that it also will allow the state to realize its potential for wind energy. For two years, legislation reforming the state's energy policy got lost in the political battle over the plants. Resolving that impasse, he argues, will allow the state to finally move forward.

It's a bargain that Parkinson said recognizes the role coal will continue to play in powering Kansas and the nation. "We can't ignore the fact that it's here," he said.

But while some Democrats expressed frustration with Parkinson's surprise move, they weren't angry enough to kill it. Legislation authorizing new environmental policies sailed through the Legislature.

Sen. David Wysong, a Mission Hills Republican, was one of only two "no" votes in the Senate. He said that he appreciates Parkinson's efforts, but that his constituents feel differently.

"I think it's a good compromise, but my district just doesn't want coal plants," Wysong said. "Sometimes you just have to vote with your district."

Environmental groups also aren't giving up hope of blocking the coal plant. They predict Sunflower will have a hard time finding financing or complying with federal regulations on carbon emissions.

And they expect a lawsuit challenging the new plant.

"This is a punt," said Scott Allegrucci, director of the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy. "This isn't over. It's not the end of the game."

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