The Kansas agency’s decision caps a controversy over a proposal by Sunflower Electric Power, a rural electrical cooperative, to build a pair of big, 700-megawatt, coal-fired plants in Holcomb, a town in the western part of the state, at a cost of about $3.6 billion. One unit would have supplied power to parts of Kansas; the other, to be owned by another rural co-op, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, would have provided electricity to fast-growing eastern Colorado.
Together the plants would have produced 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, nearly as much as a group of eight Northeastern states hope to save by 2020 through a mandatory cap-and-trade program they plan to impose. The attorneys general from those states had written a letter opposing the permit.
The proposed Holcomb plants had become the center of a political dispute in Kansas, inflaming traditional tensions between the eastern and western parts of the state, dividing labor unions and posing a test for the energy policies of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is head of the Democratic Governors Association and is believed to harbor aspirations for federal office.
Kansas, long a conservative Republican stronghold, is not generally considered to be on the leading edge of environmental causes. The GOP leadership in both the state Senate and House of Representatives endorsed the project. Although the regional United Steelworkers union opposed the plant, the state AFL-CIO supported it.
"Now the Sebelius administration rockets to the forefront of the states [working] to solve the global warming crisis," said Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club lawyer.
Like many governors, Sebelius has been promoting the expanded use of renewable energy, especially wind. In her state of the state address this year, she said: "The question of where we get our energy is . . . no longer just an economic issue, nor solely an issue of national security. Quite simply, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this state."
But she said she was leaving the air permit decision on the Holcomb plants to Bremby, her close political ally.
Tri-State and Sunflower spokesmen sharply criticized the decision and said they were examining their legal options. Bremby’s decision "has no basis in law or regulation," said Steve Miller, a Sunflower spokesman. "We still believe fiercely that this is the right project, that this is the right thing to do for customers and that the secretary has made a horrible error."
Miller said that Sebelius had pledged not to oppose the plants but that her position was clear after her "moral steward" remark. "That implies that we’re not moral stewards of the land, which we don’t appreciate one bit," he said.