Coal permit a relief

For those who still believe compromise is a virtue, the state’s issuance of an air-quality permit for a 895-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Holcomb came as a long-awaited relief. After four years of paralyzing political fights in Topeka, the state at last is on a path to help ensure its future baseline electricity needs are met — and in a way that tries to address some environmental concerns while serving the need for rural economic development.

The permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corp. is consistent with the sensible May 2009 deal brokered by Gov. Mark Parkinson. That agreement also won the state the immediate benefits of a renewable energy standard, net metering and other conservation measures that passed the Legislature and have accelerated the state’s pace of development of wind farms and transmission lines.

There are still questions about how the new permit came to be issued — including why Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bremby was sacked last month and whether KDHE employees have been working long hours in an effort to issue the permit before new federal greenhouse-gas regulations apply on Jan. 2. But Parkinson has denied that he fast-tracked the permit to duck the feds, vowing last month that the process would be fair, thorough, independent and based on the law.

And it’s important to remember that in giving Sunflower an air permit, KDHE didn’t give Sunflower a license to pollute freely. The Environmental Protection Agency will review both the permit and the decision-making process to ensure the permit reflects “sound science and federal law” and “that the environment and public health will be protected,” said Karl Brooks, Region 7 administrator for the EPA.

Nor was the issuance of the permit a guarantee that the plant will be built. The market variables have changed dramatically throughout this long process. Sunflower still must finance a project that could cost nearly $3 billion — no small feat since the global economic crisis. It also must find buyers for the power, which neither Kansas nor Colorado needs right now, though Colorado utility Tri-State Generation and Transmission again called itself a partner in the project last week.

More uncertainty will come from the courts, with a possible legal challenge by the Sierra Club and other groups. And even though a “cap-and-trade” bill seems dead in the newly GOP-led U.S. House, there’s no predicting what other forthcoming federal efforts might aim to limit or tax carbon emissions.

Critics note that as Kansas is moving ahead on a new coal-fired plant, states such as Colorado, Arizona, California and Oregon are retiring their coal plants in an effort to cut air pollution and embrace green energy. They have a point.

But Kansas isn’t California or even Colorado — nor will it become more environmentally progressive when Gov.-elect Sam Brownback and a more conservative Kansas House are sworn in next month.

As it is, according to acting Health and Environment Secretary John Mitchell, the new facility would be the cleanest coal plant in state history, with 40 percent fewer emissions than Sunflower had proposed in an earlier application.

Sunflower is still a long way from firing up its new plant. But Kansas has reaped some benefits from Sunflower’s regulatory do-over. Best of all, it’s finally over.