Eagle editorial: Holcomb power plant unlikely

With each year, legal setback, and change in the energy marketplace, it gets harder to envision another coal-fired power plant being built in western Kansas.

Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. has been trying for more than a decade to expand its operations near Holcomb, in Finney County, in a project aimed mostly at serving the electricity needs of Colorado. A 2007 denial of an air-quality permit by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment related to potential greenhouse-gas emissions led to a multiyear battle between the GOP-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. After successor Mark Parkinson cut a deal with Sunflower in 2009 and his KDHE issued a permit in 2010, environmental groups pursued a legal challenge to what was then planned as a single 895-megawatt unit.

And last week the Kansas Supreme Court reversed the state’s approval, ruling that KDHE failed to take into account applicable Environmental Protection Agency limits on the one-hour emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

That wasn’t surprising, given what we know now about what led to that permit.

A Kansas City Star investigation in 2011 revealed that KDHE staff worked nights and weekends trying to expedite the permit before stricter federal rules went into effect, and that Sunflower was so deeply involved in the permitting process as to make KDHE look like the company’s lapdog.

The court’s unanimous ruling puts Sunflower back at the starting line on a permit. And since 2010, the EPA has further tightened standards affecting coal plants. Last month EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced new pollution rules that would limit such plants’ emissions to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. Meeting such a standard would drive up Sunflower’s projected $3 billion cost of the plant.

Meanwhile, natural gas from shale has cut sharply into U.S. coal consumption, which fell by 21 percent between 2007 and 2012. And all along there have been questions about both the prospects of financing such a plant and the certainty of the out-of-state demand for its power.

Sunflower officials have said they won’t give up. And they have a lot of friends in high places who’ve tried to help them. That includes Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, who tucked a galling provision in the House-passed version of the farm bill this year aimed at skirting a federal court’s decision about the project.

Gov. Sam Brownback chimed in last week, accusing the state’s highest court of having joined “President Obama’s war on American energy” and “struck a significant blow to the struggling rural communities of southwest Kansas.”

No doubt the area could use the jobs, as could many parts of Kansas. But for now, the regulatory and market forces are against Sunflower.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman