Kansas Governor Suggests Phasing Out Renewable Standard, Then Backpedals

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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback expressed support for gradually phasing out the state’s Renewable Energy Standard (RPS) during an impromptu meeting with reporters on Wednesday morning. Later that afternoon the Republican governor’s office said he wasn’t actually proposing to phase out the clean energy policy, but meant to refer to the federal energy production tax credit (PTC), which expired last year.

Brownback, a far-right Republican affiliated with the Tea Party, is involved in an unexpectedly tight reelection campaign this year against Democrat Paul Davis with a recent poll showing Davis up by as much as six points. Brownback’s deep tax cuts have left the state facing a large budget shortfall and a number of more moderate Republicans have come out in support of Davis having lost faith in Brownback’s approach to governance.

On Wednesday, Brownback, who called Kansas “a fabulous wind state,” acknowledged the RPS’s role in supporting Kansas’s rise to the forefront of wind energy production before going on to say that he supports phasing it out in four years. Kansas has the second highest wind potential in the country and ranks third for percentage of electricity coming from wind at nearly 20 percent — the same percentage of energy that the RPS requires that utility companies get from renewable sources by 2020.

Kansas is also home to Koch Industries, led by Charles and David Koch. Koch Industries opposes renewable energy mandates and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity made repealing Kansas’s RPS a major agenda item this year. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, also associated with Koch Industries, backed repealing the mandate as well. In the end the legislation failed to pass through the Kansas House of Representatives. A second bill that would have gradually phased out the RPS failed to pass the House on the final day of the legislative session.

According to the AP, lobbying reports show that American For Prosperity’s state chapter spent $383,000 from January through April on media advertising to build support for repealing the RPS while two pro-wind groups spent about $57,000.

Brownback said he has “a lot of people pushing on me” about the issue and that he wants to “get something agreed to between the wind people and the people who are opposed this.”

Late Wednesday afternoon Brownback’s spokeswoman Eileen Hawley clarified that Brownback had actually misspoke and meant to say he wants to phase out federal tax credits for wind energy production.

“The Governor made a comment intending to say he supports phasing out production tax credits (not RPS) and emphasized his continuing support for all forms of energy production in Kansas,” Hawley said.

The PTC expired in 2013, but projects under construction before January 2014 remain eligible. Congress’s wavering on the PTC has set back the industry but recent news such as a Colorado wind turbine manufacturer hiring 800 people show the industry is persisting in the face of congressional inaction.

Even with Brownback’s correction, his position still seems tentative. After all, it was former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, who signed the RPS into law in 2009.

Kansas Chamber President Mike O’Neal told the Wichita Eagle that the compromise Brownback urged them to pursue “was definitely RPS,” and that “the Legislature have no role in the federal PTC. That’s Congress of course.”

By trying to please both the growing wind industry in the state and the anti-clean energy corporations with money to burn, Brownback is toeing a precarious line. His opponent Davis is yet to speak directly about his energy policy, but as Democratic minority leader in the state House he voted against both bills this session aimed at repealing or weakening the state’s RPS. He also voted against expanding coal-fired power plants.

Brownback is clearly looking for ways to make up lost ground in his bid for reelection. Even if the state’s RPS of 20 percent by 2020 has already basically been achieved via wind power, keeping the RPS sends the message that the government values wind power and the jobs and economic growth it offers over the demands of the coal and utility companies to keep profits high and business-as-usual.

“Having the policy on the books in Kansas communicates that we value the industry,” Karin Brownlee, who works for Kansans for Wind Energy, told E&E News earlier this year. “It communicates stability and predictability.”

A January poll found that 91 percent of Kansans support using renewable energy, and 73 percent of Republicans support the renewable standard.