Kansas Lawmakers Ignoring Federal Signals in Latest Pro-Coal Push

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Last week, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius made some remarks at Georgetown Law School to help launch a new state-federal resource center devoted to climate policy. Everyone in Kansas — especially the lawmakers — ought to watch the video of what she had to say.

She talked about "the brand new world" in Washington, how it will strengthen the work of states as they begin to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and how it will lead the way to "a new energy era."

That’s the big picture, and Kansas lawmakers are ignoring it.

This week, the state’s legislators are at it again, trying to push through approvals for the construction of two new coal plants. They want to strip power plant permitting authority from Rod Bremby, the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment who famously denied permission over concern for carbon dioxide emissions. The problem for the legislators is, the federal government now stands behind Bremby.

Wisdom has it that "all politics is local," but this case looks like an exception. Even with Sebelius leaving for Washington soon to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, pro-coal Kansas lawmakers are going to have a hard time succeeding. She quashed their efforts last year with three vetoes that they could not override, and the outcome this time around is headed in the same direction.

Sebelius is leaving her veto behind, in the person of Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson.

"All indications are that he is as strong, if not stronger on the issue, than Governor Sebelius has been," Bremby told SolveClimate today.

The Kansas House passed legislation to permit Sunflower’s coal plant construction last week and sent it to the Senate, which is working on its own version. The 79-44 House vote was five votes short of being veto proof.

If by some unlikely miracle of local politics, pro-coal Kansas lawmakers find the votes to prevail, it still will not clear the way for coal plant construction because of what’s happening in the nation’s capital. So it’s a good bet that Kansas legislators are just wasting their time.

Federal signals are already loud and clear less than two months after President Obama’s inauguration. At the end of week one, the EPA put a stop to construction of the Big Stone II coal plant in South Dakota. During week two, President Obama himself instructed the EPA to review a Bush-era decision in order to allow California and other states to adopt fuel economy standards that surpass federal ones.

Then, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator, put the coal industry on notice. She announced that she would officially review a memorandum, scribbled out in the final days of the Bush administration, that protects new coal-fired power plants from having to answer for their future greenhouses gas emissions.

She issued this warning for officials who are now considering new permits for coal plants:

Permitting authorities should not assume that the memorandum is the final word on the appropriate interpretation of Clean Air Act requirements.

A good indication of what the appropriate interpretation of those requirements are can be found in the testimony given by Lisa Heinzerling, a Georgetown law professor, in March 2008 before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Heinzerling, who was lead author of the winning briefs in Massachusetts v. EPA,  now serves as Lisa Jackson’s chief legal counsel on the Clean Air Act. Here’s what she said:

There is little doubt that many categories of stationary sources — including, for example, power plants — emit greenhouse gases and thus cause air pollution, which the Administrator has concluded endangers  public health and welfare. Under Section 111, the Administrator "shall" include these sources on a list and then "shall" regulate them.

That’s part of the firm legal foundation, upheld by the Supreme Court, for EPA authority to regulate CO2, and when Jackson sent an unequivocal signal that she intended to apply the law, it reverberated immediately through the energy industry. On the news, coal stocks plunged on Wall Street as well. According to the chief legal counsel for the Sierra Club, David Bookbinder, the EPA review effectively put a moratorium on all coal-fired plant projects.

Except for maybe the one — no, actually the two proposed Sunflower coal plants — surviving in the minds of pro-coal Kansas lawmakers who have yet to cotton on to the new wind blowing their way from Washington.


See also:

States Developing a Climate Partnership with Washington

Obama’s EPA Calls a Time-Out on Dirty Coal

EPA: We Will Move Quickly on Greenhouse Gas Ruling

Memo to Coal Power Industry: Regulations are Coming

EPA Review Reverberates Through U.S. Energy Industry

Powerful Words from the President on Auto, Energy and Climate Policy