Kansas Coal in the WSJ

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"Kansas Coal in the WSJ"

Reprinted below is an article from Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. I found it to be an honest, objective piece worth reading for details on the coal fight in Kansas I had never run across before – like the letter from six other states’ attorneys general to Secretary Bremby leading up to his decision (encouraging him to reject the permit).

There are a handful of ‘takeaways’ from the article that lay down some of the big picture context for this debate:

First, this is about more than two coal plants in Kansas. This isn’t about how one state or region gets its electricity – it’s about how an entire industrialized, wealthy country continues to prosper in the face of a globally and locally changing market.

Second, like the California EPA waiver case, these are the first traces of a state versus federal-level battle. (It may not have to be a battle, time will tell, but with the current federal Administration, it’s sure turning into one.) Were I more versed in American history, I could pull some states’ rights case out of my head for a perfect comparison.

It also raises larger political and ethical questions. Should an appointed position be able to make such a large decision (in truth, this one has been made much larger by the political context and attention)? (There’s no way we could elect every powerful position, and there’s no way elected bodies could achieve the same efficiency in decision-making as appointees.)

Is there value in making decisions for future generations? How effective is a small decision like this when compared to a problem the size of China and its population+development? Does that make the effort futile, or can its actual impact plus the message it sends overcome its size?

On this last point, I have to confess, I think the answers are Yes, and Effective because Yes, there are a lot of forces that can overcome size (not to discount how crucial federal global warming legislation is). That’s why I am a progressive – I think policy decisions should be about more than yourself and that you have to tastefully adjust to change and new knowledge (like the fact of man-made global warming).

No one said progress would be easy, but that’s the essence of human civilization. The wind won’t always blow at your back, but so long as you step up and show the sort of leadership Secretary Bremby has, there’s hope yet. It was Ayn Rand who wrote that “man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.” Anti-environmentalism, anti-altruism – I find that philosophical pillar of hers quite ironic in this case.

The article follows [unindented]:

Kansan Stokes Energy Squabble With Coal Ruling Official Cites Warming In Blocking Two Plants; ‘Ground Zero’ in Fight

By STEPHEN POWER
March 19, 2008; Page A6

WASHINGTON — Rod Bremby doesn’t have the star power of Al Gore or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his decision to block a permit for two big coal-fired power plants in Kansas has put him at center stage in the national debate over energy and the environment.

Last fall, Mr. Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, took the unusual step of citing global warming as the basis for blocking a major coal-fired power project. Legal experts said they couldn’t recall another case where a regulator at either the state or federal level has held up such a project solely over concerns about greenhouse gases.

The decision provoked outrage from coal producers. A lawsuit is pending, and the Kansas Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in. A group backed by a major coal producer printed newspaper ads alleging that Mr. Bremby’s decision benefits men like Vladimir Putin, Hugo Ch┬ívez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by forcing Kansas to “import more natural gas from countries like Russia, Venezuela and Iran.” (The U.S. doesn’t currently import natural gas from those countries, according to the U.S.’s Energy Information Administration.)

A majority of the Kansas Legislature has sided with the coal interests, passing legislation this month that would overturn Mr. Bremby’s decision and strip him of much of his power. That triggered a confrontation with the state’s governor, Kathleen Sebelius, who is threatening a veto.

“Kansas is ground zero in the fight over the future of coal,” says Frank Maisano, a Washington-based spokesman for developers of coal-fired plants. Bruce Nilles, an attorney who heads the Sierra Club’s campaign against coal, calls Mr. Bremby’s decision “a watershed moment.”

Mr. Bremby says that rejecting the plants was “extremely difficult.” The project would bring $3.6 billion in investment to the state. His own staff recommended approving it. But Mr. Bremby says it would have been “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.”

His action also highlights a growing concern for U.S. industry. In the absence of national regulations governing carbon-dioxide emissions, state officials are stepping into the void, proposing their own limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As Congress weighs proposals to enact a national cap on carbon-dioxide emissions, members are debating how much leeway to allow states to pursue their own greenhouse-gas limits.

Mr. Bremby’s decision has delighted politicians in Washington who want to curb U.S. reliance on coal, the source of about half the country’s electricity. Earlier this month, Democrats called him to Washington to testify before a congressional committee on global warming and present a counterpoint to President Bush’s top air-pollution regulator, Stephen Johnson. Mr. Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has declined for months to publicly declare greenhouse gases a threat to public health or welfare.

The 48-year-old Mr. Bremby doesn’t have a law degree or a long history in climate-change politics. Before becoming Kansas’ top health and environmental regulator, he was an assistant city manager in Lawrence, Kan., where his most extensive environmental work was controlling storm-water runoff and pesticide use in local parks.

Mr. Bremby’s critics say he acted unlawfully by unilaterally altering public policy in the absence of federal or state laws governing carbon-dioxide emissions. A major reason why Kansans enjoy low electricity costs compared with the national average is that three-quarters of their electricity comes from coal-fired generating plants, according to the EIA. If Mr. Bremby’s decision stands, his critics say, it will lead to higher energy costs for consumers, while doing nothing to address Kansas’ older, more inefficient coal-fired plants.

“For an unelected person to decide on his own to make this kind of decision without any input from the legislative branch is a huge mistake,” says Steve Morris, president of Kansas’ state Senate. “When you hear about China putting a new coal plant on line every week and so many other sources of pollution around, to try to single out one [project] as the magic bullet to offset the emissions of tens of thousands of other emissions producers doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Despite their large carbon footprint, the plants also would have emitted less carbon dioxide on a kilowatt-hour basis than any coal-fired plant in Kansas. The plants’ developer had planned to partially offset their emissions by capturing their carbon-dioxide emissions and using them to grow algae. The algae would then be used for a number of purposes, including to make biodiesel, an alternative to petroleum.

But, Mr. Bremby points out, most of the energy generated by the plants would have gone outside the state. In making his decision, he says, he was influenced by “a lot of things [that] were moving at the same time.” They included a Supreme Court ruling in April that carbon-dioxide is a pollutant, emerging scientific evidence about climate change and a joint letter from attorneys general for six states, warning him that the proposed plants’ carbon-dioxide emissions would cancel out their own states’ carbon-dioxide reductions.

That scenario, Mr. Bremby says, seemed “absurd,” given that his state has only 2.7 million inhabitants, compared with 45 million in the other affected states. “If appointed officials only did what they’re directed to do by policy makers, without [heeding] science or laws, they’d be just hacks,” Mr. Bremby says. He also notes that two months before his decision, the Kansas Energy Council — a group that advises the state on energy policy and that includes half a dozen senior legislators — declined to endorse either a cap or a tax on carbon-dioxide emissions.

“No one was dealing with it,” Mr. Bremby says of man-made carbon-dioxide emissions in his state.

Some of Mr. Bremby’s opponents accuse him of kowtowing to his boss, Gov. Sebelius. A fast-rising star in Democratic Party politics, Ms. Sebelius had publicly opposed the project. Mr. Bremby says that he never discussed the plants with her before his decision and that her views didn’t influence him. A spokesman for Gov. Sebelius says the governor didn’t attempt to sway Mr. Bremby.

In the absence of any state laws regulating greenhouse gases, Mr. Bremby has prodded Kansas’ utilities to reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions voluntarily. Last month, he secured a commitment from Kansas’ biggest utility, Westar Energy Inc., to measure its greenhouse gases and find ways to reduce them.

But the company’s agreement doesn’t set specific emissions targets. And until the federal government regulates greenhouse gases, Mr. Bremby says, his state will be limited in its ability to address carbon-dioxide emissions. “I can’t do anything about what’s going on in China,” Mr. Bremby says. “But I know this decision means we [in Kansas] won’t be contributing to that impact of climate change.”

– Kari Manlove

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