Thursday, February 19, 2009

The wind in Kansas blows mainly in the ... state house

Cross-posted on the COEJL blog, To Till and To Tend

Sometimes in Kansas it feels that we are far removed from the decisions being made on the major issues of the day. But right now we are on the frontlines of the struggle to move America away from polluting energy generation technologies toward a more green and sustainable future.
Some background: last year the head of the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment (KDHE), Rod Bremby, overturned plans to build two massive coal burning plants in Western Kansas (known as Holcomb), on the grounds of their impact on global warming. Sunflower Energy, which had proposed the plant, sued in state court, but the courts have supported Demby’s authority to take the action. At the same time, the state is politically quite conservative, and majorities in both houses of the Kansas legislature passed laws a) to strip Bremby of his authority to veto the plants, and b) to specifically approve building them. Three times such laws were passed; three times they were vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius; and three times the Republicans failed to muster enough votes to overturn the veto.

But the issue dominated business for the whole of 2008, as very little else could get done, least of all any kind of comprehensive energy policy. For instance, net metering, by which it is possible to give the excess energy one generates oneself, through solar cells or wind power, back to the utility, has not been approved in Kansas; approval of it last year was included as a “sweetener” in the Holcomb plant bill, and therefore was vetoed as well.

So now here it is 2009, and climate activists have been waiting to see how this issue will be developed this year. Now we know:

The fight over building two coal-burning electric power plants in southwestern Kansas starts again today with a public hearing on House Bill 2182 in the House Energy and Utilities Committee.

The bill makes no mention of the proposal to build two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants near Holcomb in southwestern Kansas.

But it limits the authority of Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Roderick Bremby in a way that will require him to approve permits for the plants, according to opponents of the project.
If the KDHE secretary is stripped of his decision-making powers, then there would be no need to have a second bill specifically to support the plants. Of course, this bill is likely to be vetoed by Gov. Sebelius as well (and if she goes to HHS, by her Lt. Gov., Mark Parkinson).

There are two ironies in this whole thing. First, it’s quite clear that the “regulatory uncertainty” that Chamber of Commerce types complain about is actually coming, not from Topeka, but from Washington:

With concerns over climate change intensifying, electricity generation from coal, once reliably cheap, looks increasingly expensive in the face of the all-but-certain prospect of regulations that would impose significant costs on companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The article also points out that, far from Kansas being unique in this, in fact

In the last two-and-a-half years, plans for 83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn or denied permits by state regulators.
The other irony is that Kansas is uniquely qualified to be a trailblazer in the area of alternative fuels, particularly wind – as you know if you’ve ever been here. Gov. Sebelius calls the state the “Saudi Arabia of wind power.” If only the state legislators and industry leaders would turn their field of vision from the past to the future, that is.

I am on the steering committee of Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, the local outpost of a national organization that engages diverse faith communities in the issue of environmental stewardship. We do this mostly on the retail level, by going from congregation to congregation to encourage them to green their facilities and to teach the religious imperative to care for the earth through the fight against climate change.

But we also realize that one Holcomb plant (two, actually) would do more damage to the environment than 1,000 churches caulking their windows could fix. That’s why we’ve turned our attention to the legislative process, to encourage our state officials to support conservation, energy efficiency, and green energy options rather than the continued reliance on the outmoded energy-generating technologies of the past.

After all, we are convinced, it's the godly thing to do.

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