Clearing the air
Local activists applaud Kansas power plant denials

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Barbed wire cordons off a power transformer near the base of Animas Mountain. Two Kansas coal-fired power plants, one of which would have been built by Tri-State Generating, which supplies power to La Plata Electric Association, were denied permits by that state’s Department of Health last week. Concerns over environmental and human health were cited amid increasing concerns over CO2 emissions and global warming./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

The recent denial of two new coal-fired power plants in Kansas is being lauded across state lines, where opponents of a similarly sized project are waging battle in the Four Corners.

“It’s a wake-up call,” said Josh Joswick, oil and gas coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “One would hope that states are going to start looking a little more closely at these kinds of projects. Whether it’s in Kansas or directly south of us, it still allows the same environmental degradation.”

Last week, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment killed a proposal for the two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants in western Kansas based on air pollution concerns. The two plants would have been built near an existing plant owned by Sunflower Electric in Holcomb, Kan. The first plant would have been owned by Westminster-based Tri-State Generation, the supplier for La Plata Electric Association, while the other plant would have been owned by Sunflower and Texas-based Golden Spread Electric. The electricity generated by the Tri-State unit would have served customers in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.

In denying the air permit, Kansas Health Department Director Rod Bremby cited state law, which authorizes him to deny permits based on human and environmental health concerns, as well as recent findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that humans are to blame for most observed climate warming. “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,” stated Bremby.

Conventional coal-fired power plants emit around two pounds of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt-hour of electricity, meaning the proposed Tri-State and Sunflower units would have emitted more than 11 million tons of pollution annually.

The denial was lauded by environmental groups across the West.

“This courageous decision is a huge gust of fresh air, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the staff at state environment department should be applauded for their vision,” said Matt Baker, executive director of Environment Colorado. “This is going to have lasting rewards for the region’s air, water, economy and climate.”

Local opponents of traditional coal-fired power say the potential threats of global warming for the Western U. S. are particularly alarming, ranging from decreased snowpack to more severe droughts and wildfires, not to mention public health problems.

“The Kansas decision acknowledges that the future climate cannot bear additional coal-fired power plants unless they capture carbon dioxide,” said Dick White, policy chair for the Southwest Colorado Renewable Energy Society.

Opponents also charge that, in addition to protecting the climate, the decision will save ratepayers money in the long run. Recent projections for emissions controls range from $10 to $40 a ton by 2020, which could have lead to hundreds of millions of dollars a year in extra operating costs for Tri-State and billions over the plant’s lifespan.

“Kansas’ denial is emblematic of growing disillusionment with coal as an energy source,” said John Nielsen, the energy policy director at Western Resource Advocates. “It’s going to save Tri-State’s ratepayers from having to shoulder the burden of dramatic rate increases necessary to pay for the Kansas plant. And hopefully it encourages Tri-State to focus on the huge opportunities for energy efficiency and developing renewable energy sources.”

However, Tri-State and Sunflower officials counter the denial will be a setback, not only economically but environmentally.

“We are disappointed with the arbitrary and capricious action,” stated Earl Watkins, Sunflower’s president and chief executive officer. “This destroys the opportunity for $200 million of direct benefit for central and western Kansas customers and diminishes the ability to build transmission necessary for additional wind power growth.”

In addition to incorporating the latest pollution-reducing technologies, the plant expansion would have financed an innovative technology for re-cycling carbon dioxide, according to plant officials. The power plant expansion would have paid for an algae reactor, which is able to transform carbon dioxide into biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel.

In the meantime, Sunflower and Tri-State officials say they are assessing their next step and not ruling out legal action. “Naturally we are all disappointed, and we are in the process of evaluating our options,” stated an attorney for Tri-State.

Watkins added that despite the decision, there are still 1.5 million customers in need of reliable, low-cost power. “We will endeavor to fulfill that mission in the appropriate way, but those customers will be harmed and the economy damaged by the decision,” he said.

However, Joswick, with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, notes that the prevalent winds may be shifting in regards to public sentiment. According to recent news reports, plans for at least 16 coal-fired plants have been scrapped since last May, with more than three dozen more delayed over concerns of global warming. “More and more people are waking up to the threat,” he said. “The future is not headed toward coal unless it gets a lot cleaner than it is now. When the industry says ‘clean coal,’ they’ve got to prove it.” •