“Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” Dr. James Hansen
Environmental activists were stunned. Even the Kansas legislature, on both sides of the aisle, was taken off guard.
How this deal came about has implications not only for its potential environmental impact, but for the question of how energy policy is formulated, in this instance by a politician and an energy executive behind closed doors.
“As a Progressive,” Scott Allegrucci told me at a coffee house in Lawrence, Kansas, “most of what you do in Kansas is you keep bad things from happening.”
For the past two years the bad thing that has been front and center for Allegrucci, the Director of the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy (GPACE), was a proposal by Sunflower to build two coal-fired electric plants in Holcomb, in the southwest corner of the state, with a combined capacity of 1400 MW. These plants would spew 11 million tons of CO² into the atmosphere annually, making them one of the largest sources of pollution in the U.S.
Parkinson effectively gave away the farm. Two-thirds of the original proposal would go ahead.
Watkins’ glee was palpable.
“He’s the one who reached out to us,” Watkins said of Parkinson. “We have a hands-on governor, one that I’m proud of.”
Allegrucci called the compromise, “the epitome of a backroom deal.”
Perhaps now writ smaller, the Dick Cheney model of relying on energy executives to make energy policy had spawned. A decision that will affect generations of Kansans and beyond, for the millions of tons of carbon dioxide the plant will release into the atmosphere are hardly the provenance of one state, was made without any disinterested scientists or environmental experts in the room.
Throughout the region editorials both praised and excoriated Parkinson. The Sierra Club, which was party to a lawsuit against Sunflower and had campaigned to prevent these new coal plants from being built, issued several statements to the public and its members deploring the outcome.
“We are shocked and disgusted by this back room deal,” Kansas Sierra Club Chair Frank Drinkwine said in an open letter to members, “but are working around the clock to develop our next move, and to ensure that our voice is heard in the public debate.”
Allegrucci, whose organization is a broad coalition of environmental, labor, health, and other groups, called the announcement “a belly-blow.” After two years of raising funds, lobbying, and campaigning—some of this activity with direct encouragement from the new governor—he felt betrayed.
“A gut punch,” he repeated, gesturing a fist into his solar-plexus.
Parkinson’s deal was especially stunning because Sebelius had opposed the plants, even vetoing several Republican-sponsored bills that would have allowed them to go forward. The announcement came on the very day that Democrats and environmentalists expected the latest veto to be sustained against a Republican attempt to override it.
In short, victory was at hand. Why do this now?
Some history is needed.
In early 2006, Sunflower Electric applied to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) for a permit to build three 700 MW plants. While the baseload need for Kansas was roughly 200 MW, considerably less than the proposed 2100 MW, two of the new plants would provide energy to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based energy cooperative. Energy would also be sold to Texas, with about 10% of the total-generated electricity staying in Kansas.
Tri-State needed a Kansas partner because restrictive environmental regulations in Colorado, as well as an increasingly Democratic state government, prevented Tri-State from expanding. As one observer wryly commented, “Kansas would be Colorado’s coal bitch.”
A fire-storm arose within the state as public hearings took place in 2006. I attempted to attend one hearing in Lawrence, but hundreds of people clogged the hallways outside a meeting room with a capacity for about fifty. Supporters of the proposed plants rallied to the prospect of thousands of new jobs and a boost for the sagging Kansas economy, while opponents pointed out that 90% of the energy would leave the state but 100% of the pollution would remain, much of it swept by southwesterly winds directly into the most populous areas in the east.
Then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, courageously aligned herself with opponents of the new plants against the majority Republican legislature and some Democrats from conservative districts.
By mid 2007 Sunflower had taken one of the plants off the menu, but later that year the entire question took a new turn when KDHE Secretary Roderick L. Bremby, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Massachusetts v. the Environmental Protection Agency, which determined that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and must be regulated, denied permits for the two proposed plants.
“I believe it would be irresponsible,” Bremby said, “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.”
This action blew heavy and hot wind into the already-intense flames engulfing the issue.
Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller responded sharply, "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.”
Promising a court fight, he even took umbrage at a statement by Sebelius suggesting that Sunflower was a less-than responsible environmental citizen.
"That implies,” he said, “that we're not moral stewards of the land, which we don't appreciate one bit."
Sunflower and the Republican legislature set the tone for the next two years, as the issue shifted, Allegrucci pointed out, from a policy matter to a political dogfight. A cottage industry of lobbyists arose in Topeka, with coal proponents outnumbering environmental groups by 6 to 1. Legislators were subjected to an onslaught of lobbying whenever they stepped into the hallways of the capital.
Sebelius was vilified by coal supporters. A series of ads ran in Wichita papers depicting the smiling faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Why are these men smiling?” the ad asked, and then responded, “Because the recent decision by the Sebelius Administration means Kansas will import morenatural gas from countries like Russia, Venezuela and Iran.”
In addition to being offensive, the ad is wrong. Kansas is a producer of natural gas, not an importer. More importantly, Kansans for Affordable Energy, the ad’s sponsor, was supported by Sunflower and by the Peabody Coal Company.
With the governor’s office and a critical cabinet member aligned against it, Sunflower tried another tactic—portraying itself as a victim.
"We're like a wounded deer laying in the middle of the highway now," declared Sunflower’s Miller. "So you can imagine everyone who wants to finish us off is throwing money in the pot right now."
Randy Schofield of the Wichita Eagle responded dryly, “Somehow I never thought of a massive coal-fired power complex as a wounded deer. Or even an endangered species. If so, this wounded deer has a truckload of highly paid lawyers in its corner.”
Republican coal-supporters pulled out the Karl Rove playbook and made the issue “a patriotic litmus test,” Allegrucci said.
Ally Devine, a lobbyist for the Kansas Livestock Association, raised the dire specter of business having no safeguards from government interference. Could socialism be far behind?
According to notes taken by Maril Hazlett, who runs the Climate and Energy Project blog, at a Feb. 4, 2009, hearing Devine said, “And who knows who getsregulated anymore, anyone could get regulated. Individuals have rights, due process, rules of evidence apply, because we need to clarify who is in charge when.”
Mark Calcara, Sunflower Electric’s Chief Counsel, asked at the same hearing, “Is this state going to follow the rule of law? All our fundamental rights and freedoms depend on this.”
He continued, “Rule of law separates free and democratic nations. If we violate this law then all of our other freedoms are at risk. At what point do our freedoms end and tyranny begin? We will lose our freedoms inch by inch by well meaning Americans who think ends justify means.”
Allegrucci believes that tactically coal-supporters may have gone too far. The hyperbole hurt their cause with moderates and exposed the desperation of coal advocates.
Outnumbered and outspent, the anti-coal forces were within sight of preventing ground from ever breaking on these plants. Business as usual was done for good in Kansas.
By now, polling also revealed that pro-coal interests had reason to be worried.
An independent poll commissioned by GPACE in Feb. 2009 revealed that by a margin of more than 3 to 1 (64% to 18%) Kansans favored developing clean, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and biofuels over building new coal plants. Additionally, 88% of Kansans wanted to see the state become energy independent by exploring its indigenous resources, especially natural gas and wind.
Fast forward through the lawsuits and protests, the bills and vetoes (3 in 2008), the vitriolic editorials and hard feelings among lawmakers (even within parties) from 2006 to 2009.
When Sebelius departed for Washington in April 2009, she left behind her veto signature on a Republican-sponsored bill that would have allowed the two coal-burning plants, with their 11 million tons of CO², to go forward.
The anticipated effort by House and Senate Republicans in Topeka to override the Sebelius veto catalyzed GPACE and the Sierra Club into a feverish and expensive last-ditch, throw-everything-you-got-at-it effort to block the override attempt. Mailers went out. Phone-bankers and door-to-door canvassers went to work. GPACE spent over $50,000. A margin of just two or three votes would end Sunflower’s effort if not for good, at least for years; or it would allow the plants to be built, ensuring that conservative, climate-change-doubting Republicans would have no incentive to engage in any meaningful renewable energy legislation.
By Monday, May 4th, the scheduled date for the override vote, environmentalists smelled victory. The override attempt would fail. The three-year battle would be over.
Late in the afternoon, however, before the vote, word went out on very short notice that the new governor, sworn in just six days earlier, planned a press conference.
Allegrucci, who communicated regularly with the governor’s office and knew most of the players in Topeka, got five minutes’ notice.
Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat and the House Minority Leader, got only slightly more. About ten minutes before the press conference, he was called into a meeting with the governor and three other key Democrats (Rep. Annie Kuether, House Ranking Member, Energy and Utilities; Sen. Anthony Hensley, Senate Minority Leader; and Sen. Janis Lee, Ranking Member, Energy and Utilities), where Parkinson advised them of his deal with Sunflower.
I spoke with Davis at his law office in Lawrence and asked if he thought Republicans would obstruct renewable energy legislation without this deal.
“Yes, absolutely,” he responded. “There were a number of statements coming from various Republican legislators that until we get Holcomb [the proposed power plants] resolved we’re not going to allow any type of renewable energy legislation.”
He also pointed out that Parkinson was effectively acting as a lawyer, which he is, in negotiating directly with Watkins. This settlement agreement would resolve the lawsuit filed by Sunflower following the Bremby decision.
Even so, I asked, doesn’t this process still smack of backroom politics and energy policy formulated by non-experts?
Conceding that he was seeing this as a lawyer might, Davis said, “The governor is essentially negotiating on behalf of the state, and the office of the governor is a party to that lawsuit, so I think he had that authority to negotiate this outside of the public spectrum because of the nature of that. Now would it have been better to have had some light shed on this while that negotiation was going through? Certainly, but I can understand why it was done the way that it was.”
Davis also pointed out that, with the governor’s term only lasting a year and a half (he’s not seeking re-election), he was no doubt eager to see renewable energy policy formulated before he left office.
Davis described Parkinson’s frustration at seeing jobs in wind technology lost to other states, citing two such conversations.
“I think that he really sees that that may be his legacy as governor,” Davis added, “and if this Holcomb issue was still on the table that was just all for nothing. So I think that’s really the driving force behind taking this action.”
Scott Allegrucci agrees that Parkinson has a keen interest in developing wind energy in Kansas, along with the jobs it would create, but he believes that while the legislation that resulted from the agreement with Sunflower offers some limited benefits, like net metering, it falls well short of ensuring that alternative energy sources will be developed in Kansas in any meaningful way. If anything, there are numerous opportunities for Sunflower to opt out of using renewable energy sources, like biofuels.
Also troubling, the new legislation strips the Secretary of KDHE of the very powers that allowed him to block the original permit application by Sunflower, an issue that led Rep. Davis to vote against it.
And there’s still the 7 million tons of CO² that Kansas will contribute to warming the globe, largely offsetting efforts in other states to curb carbon pollution.
Is it possible, as some speculate, that Parkinson made a brilliant political maneuver by getting this agreement? Was he looking ahead to the prospect of restrictive EPA air standards and a potential lawsuit over the KDHE secretary’s powers ultimately standing in the way of new construction?
Davis gives no credence to that theory.
Allegrucci allows for it, but says it was “a risk that we didn’t really need to take.” After all, the votes were there to block both plants.
He further points out that it still means that energy policy (even if it turns out to be good policy) was formulated behind closed doors and without experts to provide guidance.
Tom Thompson, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, thinks that Parkinson may not believe the plant will ever be built, but by compromising with western Kansans, where advocacy for the coal plant was fiercest, he may have shored up support for a possible U.S. Senate run.
“This was probably a stroke of political genius for him,” Thompson said over coffee in Mission, Kansas. “He is now somewhat of a hero in western Kansas for saving Sunflower. Even if it doesn’t happen, they’re going to remember that he was able to pull this out of the jaws of defeat.”
In October 2008, Parkinson was still lieutenant governor (and a recent convert to the Democratic Party) when he addressed a group of environmentalists at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
He challenged the audience to take a “new” approach to environmental issues.
“It’s entirely possible,” he said, “that everything we’re doing in the environmental community is wrong.”
He continued, “The problem that we have is not going to be solved by politicians like me or by people in Washington. This problem is going to be solved by scientists.”
His audience, it’s fair to say, was ahead of him on this. But when it finally came time for him to tackle the most significant environmental problem Kansas has ever faced, backroom politics trumped science.
(1) Craig Volland, “Fact Sheet on the Governor’s Coal Plant Agreement with Sunflower Electric,” Planet Kansas, June 2009, 8-11, 15, 23. This is the most comprehensive fact sheet available on the problems with this agreement and the legislation that emerged from it.