Energy & Environment

Coal-Fired Compromise

No one expected Mark Parkinson to pursue an aggressive agenda as governor of Kansas. When he took over on an interim basis in April, after...
by | June 30, 2009

No one expected Mark Parkinson to pursue an aggressive agenda as governor of Kansas. When he took over on an interim basis in April, after Kathleen Sebelius joined the Obama cabinet, he had only 20 months left before his term expired, and he promised not to run next year. But within a week of being sworn in, Parkinson had put to rest the state's most contentious political and legal issue.

In October 2007, Rod Bremby, the state environment and health secretary, denied permits for a pair of coal-fired power plants that Sunflower Electric Power wanted to build in western Kansas. Bremby said the plants' pollutants would worsen global warming. His action triggered a half-dozen lawsuits, and the legislature passed three bills to overturn his decision, but Sebelius sided with Bremby and vetoed them.

Then Parkinson came in and suggested a deal of Solomon-like simplicity. Sunflower wanted two plants. Parkinson offered them one, an 895-megawatt facility, down from the 1,400 megawatts that two plants would have created. Sunflower immediately went for the idea, and the legislature approved it.

The new governor's breakthrough, though, blindsided environmentalists, who felt that he had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. "It really does put Kansas out of sync with what's happening nationally," says Stephanie Cole, a regional representative of the Sierra Club. Since Bremby's original decision, about 95 power plants around the country have seen their permits denied, delayed or withdrawn for reasons similar to the ones he cited.

Moreover, the deal allows Sunflower to come back and ask for a second plant in 2011. And some of the environmentally friendly provisions in the agreement don't amount to a lot, such as one requiring Sunflower to dismantle a pair of small power facilities that hadn't been used for years anyway.

But Parkinson thought it was important for Kansas to also move ahead with wind-power generation, and, most significantly, make progress toward a requirement that Sunflower and other utilities generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. That mandate was included in the final legislative package, and wouldn't have gotten anywhere as long as Sunflower's permits were held up.

Parkinson may have bought his state some peace, but he's ended Kansas' brief stature as an unlikely leader in the fight against climate change. In addition to compromising on the power plant, the new agreement blocks Bremby's department from issuing air-quality standards that are any more stringent than the ones Washington requires.


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