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Correction to This Article
The article about a permit rejection for a proposed power plant incorrectly identified Bob Eye as a former Kansas state legislator. He is the former general counsel for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Power Plant Rejected Over Carbon Dioxide For First Time

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment yesterday became the first government agency in the United States to cite carbon dioxide emissions as the reason for rejecting an air permit for a proposed coal-fired electricity generating plant, saying that the greenhouse gas threatens public health and the environment.

The decision marks a victory for environmental groups that are fighting proposals for new coal-fired plants around the country. It may be the first of a series of similar state actions inspired by a Supreme Court decision in April that asserted that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide should be considered pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

In the past, air permits, which are required before construction of combustion facilities, have been denied over emissions such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. But Roderick L. Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said yesterday that "it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing."

The Kansas agency's decision caps a controversy over a proposal by Sunflower Electric Power, a rural electrical cooperative, to build a pair of big, 700-megawatt, coal-fired plants in Holcomb, a town in the western part of the state, at a cost of about $3.6 billion. One unit would have supplied power to parts of Kansas; the other, to be owned by another rural co-op, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, would have provided electricity to fast-growing eastern Colorado.

Together the plants would have produced 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, nearly as much as a group of eight Northeastern states hope to save by 2020 through a mandatory cap-and-trade program they plan to impose. The attorneys general from those states had written a letter opposing the permit.

The proposed Holcomb plants had become the center of a political dispute in Kansas, inflaming traditional tensions between the eastern and western parts of the state, dividing labor unions and posing a test for the energy policies of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is head of the Democratic Governors Association and is believed to harbor aspirations for federal office.

Kansas, long a conservative Republican stronghold, is not generally considered to be on the leading edge of environmental causes. The GOP leadership in both the state Senate and House of Representatives endorsed the project. Although the regional United Steelworkers union opposed the plant, the state AFL-CIO supported it.

"Now the Sebelius administration rockets to the forefront of the states [working] to solve the global warming crisis," said Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club lawyer.

Like many governors, Sebelius has been promoting the expanded use of renewable energy, especially wind. In her state of the state address this year, she said: "The question of where we get our energy is . . . no longer just an economic issue, nor solely an issue of national security. Quite simply, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this state."

But she said she was leaving the air permit decision on the Holcomb plants to Bremby, her close political ally.

Tri-State and Sunflower spokesmen sharply criticized the decision and said they were examining their legal options. Bremby's decision "has no basis in law or regulation," said Steve Miller, a Sunflower spokesman. "We still believe fiercely that this is the right project, that this is the right thing to do for customers and that the secretary has made a horrible error."

Miller said that Sebelius had pledged not to oppose the plants but that her position was clear after her "moral steward" remark. "That implies that we're not moral stewards of the land, which we don't appreciate one bit," he said.

Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State, said Bremby had disregarded his own staff, which had recommended issuing the permit.

The plants' powerful supporters included the speaker of the state House, Melvin Neufeld, who had earlier gathered the signatures of 46 GOP members, including key committee chairmen, for a letter to Bremby. The letter said, "Without your approval of the permit as proposed by Sunflower, our state and its citizens will lose access to the low-cost energy source and millions in economic development." Thirty-one Republican House members declined to sign the letter.

Neufeld said the plants would bring in new tax revenue, create hundreds of jobs, prompt the expansion of transmission lines that could also be used for wind power and keep energy costs low for Kansans by producing enough power to export to other states.

But the plants had aroused strong opposition, especially in the half-dozen eastern counties from Topeka to Kansas City, which have enough voters to carry statewide elections.

Bob Eye, a former state legislator, said of yesterday's decision: "Is it without precedent? Yes, as far as I know, in this state or any other." But he argued that "CO{-2} . . . is a pollutant, not just because the Sierra Club says it, but because the Supreme Court said it."

Holcomb's previous claim to fame had been the savage murders that Truman Capote described in his book "In Cold Blood." Holcomb was a place, Capote wrote, that stood "on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.' "

But Eye argued that wind projects were building a new constituency for renewable energy resources even "out there" among the people who were supposed to be the biggest backers of Sunflower's plans. FPL Group, a Florida power firm with a wind farm in Kansas, said it is making payments to about 30 landowners there.

Sunflower, which already has a smaller coal-fired plant in Holcomb, has portrayed the proposed plants as part of a "bio-energy center" that would include an ethanol plant and an $86 million facility that would use a still-experimental algae process to capture carbon dioxide emissions from the proposed generating units. But one investor in the center had pulled out before yesterday's decision.

Even without yesterday's permit denial, the Holcomb project faced economic challenges. A proposal to build a third new unit there was dropped earlier. Tri-State must also meet a renewable portfolio standard adopted recently by Colorado. (Tri-State supported the measure.) That requires utilities to use renewable energy sources to meet 10 percent of their sales. Because Tri-State's purchases of hydropower do not count, it uses less than 1 percent renewable resources. Two-thirds of its power comes from coal. It is negotiating to acquire some wind power.

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