TOPEKA, Kan. — A utility company and state lawmakers are vowing to challenge the rejection of a permit for two coal-fired power plants in Kansas where the state's top environmental regulator cited emissions of carbon dioxide.
The ruling could have an impact across the country and was hailed as a victory by environmental groups that warn the plants contribute dangerously to global warming.
“As far as I know, this is the first time an air permit for a coal-fired power plant has been denied based on concerns about the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on human health and the environment,” Nick Persampieri, an attorney in Denver for the environmental group Earthjustice, said Friday. “We think it is a big deal.”
The case will be used as a precedent elsewhere, he predicted.
The Thursday decision by Rod Bremby, secretary of health and environment, prevents Sunflower Electric Power Corp. from starting construction on a $3.6 billion project outside Holcomb. The utility is expected to challenge the ruling.
Bremby said he denied the permit over concerns about the plants' potential carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists say that CO2 is a major contributor to climate change, but Kansas doesn't regulate it.
"I believe 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," Bremby said in a statement.
Sunflower called the decision arbitrary and predicted it would raise electric rates and delay construction of larger transmission lines. Spokesman Steve Miller said the utility is troubled because Bremby "reached up and did this" without any legal standards on CO2.
'Lawyers all over the place'
"We've got lawyers all over the place, and they're gathering to see how best to next proceed," he said.
The decision quickly became a hot political issue in the state.
Supporters of the plant including House Speaker Melvin Neufeld and Senate President Steve Morris, saw the project as vital economic development for rural Kansas. Some Republicans accused Bremby, an appointee, of knuckling under to political pressure from his boss, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and exceeding his authority.
"The Legislature will clearly have to look into how a cabinet officer can exceed his authority with impunity," said GOP Sen. Jay Emler, chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee.
Finney County Democratic Party chairman Lon Wartman resigned in disgust, calling the state party's leaders "despicable" in an e-mail to reporters.
But Eric Depperschmidt, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., saw the decision only as a delay and predicted Sunflower eventually will prevail in court.
"I'm very confident that this will move forward," Depperschmidt said.
State AG concurs
That opinion is at odds with the state attorney general's.
Despite the state's lack of regulations, Attorney General Paul Morrison advised Bremby last month that Kansas law gave him the power to declare CO2 a health and environmental hazard and deny a permit over potential emissions.
Bremby noted that in April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was a pollutant regulated by the federal Clean Air Act.
He called his decision a step toward addressing carbon dioxide and promised that the Department of Health and Environment will work with officials in different industries to develop goals for reducing CO2 emissions.
Bremby also said his decision was in keeping with other states' initiatives. The attorneys general of California, New York and six other states had said approving the plants would undercut their states' efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions.
"This decision is just further evidence that the days of business as usual for coal are over," said Mark Brownstein, managing director for Washington-based Environmental Defense. "It's just another indication of how the center of gravity on this issue has shifted."
Late last year, Sebelius expressed concerns that if Bremby rejected Sunflower's permit, the plants would be built in another state, leaving Kansas with the pollution but not the economic development. This summer, however, she came out against the Sunflower project.
Sebelius issued a statement Thursday saying she was "encouraged" by the decision.
Kansas already relies more heavily on coal-fired plants than the nation as a whole, receiving 75 percent of its electricity from them, according to Department of Energy statistics. Utilities, including Sunflower, operate 15 coal-fired units in seven counties.
"These additional coal plants would have moved us in the wrong direction and far exceed the critical power needs for Kansas homes and businesses," Sebelius said in a statement.
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