Kansas Approves New Coal Plant Three Days Before Power Plant Emission Rules Are Announced

Coal emissions would be regulated under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which coal-producing states are challenging in federal court. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Coal emissions would be regulated under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which coal-producing states are challenging in federal court. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Many lawmakers and pundits have called the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent actions on power plant emissions, including the rule for existing plants released today, a “war on coal.” But if it is a war, Kansas, for one, is not going down without a fight.

On Friday — three days before the EPA released its new proposed rule on CO2 emissions from existing power plants — Kansas officials approved plans to build a new coal-fired power plant in the state. The 895-megawatt Sunflower plant, which is slated to be built outside Holcomb, Kansas, will have steeper pollution controls for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other pollutants than its utility had originally proposed, due to a state Supreme Court ruling that forced stricter controls on the plant last year. But Kansas officials say the new permit did not anticipate the rule on existing power plant emissions released today by the EPA, meaning that once the plant is built, it may have to undergo some changes in order for Kansas to meet its CO2 emissions reductions target.

The Sunflower plant’s path to approval has been a rocky one. The Sierra Club and Earthjustice sued the Kansas Department of Health and Environment after the agency granted a permit to the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation for the new coal plant in 2010. Back then, the environmental groups said the plant’s permit did not meet federal standards for pollutants that had been imposed before the permit had been issued. The Court agreed, but it allowed the utility to file another permit that contained stricter pollution controls, rather than striking down the plans for the coal plant altogether. Sierra Club members weren’t happy to hear last week’s news of the new permit’s approval, but they told the AP that they weren’t sure yet whether they would pursue the case further.

“I think they’re just hoping that if they close their eyes and cover their ears, all this will just go away,” said Amanda Goodin, an attorney for Earthjustice.

The EPA proposed federal regulations on new power plants last year that made it extremely difficult for new coal-fired plants to be built unless they employ carbon capture and storage technology. But those rules haven’t gone into effect yet, so the Kansas coal plant doesn’t have to comply with them.

The news of Kansas’ newest coal-fired power plant comes as a new survey finds that two-thirds of people polled thought it was a good idea to “modernize” America’s power system, and 58 percent said they wanted the country to move from old energy sources, like coal, to renewable sources — even that move costs more than sticking with coal would.

Recent polling has also found that a wide majority of Americans support carbon regulations on power plants. Seventy percent of poll respondents said they think the federal government should enact emissions limits on existing power plants, along with another 70 percent saying that states should limit their own greenhouse gas emissions.

The polling results were bipartisan, with a majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents supporting state-by-state limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and they came even from people who lived in coal-producing states. In addition, 63 percent of respondents still supported regulations on greenhouse gases even if those regulations “raised your monthly energy expenses by 20 dollars a month,” including 51 percent of Republicans.

The Sunflower plant, however, is a bit of an anomaly. The U.S. in recent years hasn’t been building new coal-fired power plants, because the low price of natural gas has made the fuel a top choice for utilities (though that has changed somewhat recently). The EPA’s proposed rule on new power plants will likely make new coal plants even scarcer in the country.