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PEOPLEWATCH:
Coal-fired controversy

04/2008

Interviewed by Charles Linn, FAIA

Kathleen Sebelius has a keen sense of the desires of the people of Kansas—she is a Democrat who has twice been elected governor of this decidedly Republican state. Recently she has drawn criticism from legislators, utility companies, and the coal industry for opposing the construction of two huge coal-fired power plants in her state. The debate is worth watching because controversy over whether technologies such as wind power, biomass, and photovoltaics are ready and affordable will be repeated everywhere reliance on coal has always kept the price of power low.

Kathleen Sebelius
Photo courtesy Getty Images
Kathleen Sebelius
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GreenSource: Can you tell us when you first became interested in climate change as a political issue, and why is it so important to you?

Kathleen Sebelus: As the International Panel on Climate Change [starting with its second report in 1995] continued issuing information about climate change and its likely impact on our world, I realized that tackling climate change was likely to become one of the single-biggest issues to face our generation.

As I continued to read about the likelihood that some kind of fee would be attached to carbon emissions, I grew increasingly concerned about the impact such a fee would have on Kansans. The state is ranked 10th in the nation for per-capita carbon- dioxide emissions. This is due in part to our energy portfolio being too heavily sided toward coal. While the nation receives only half of its energy from coal, here in Kansas we receive 75 percent.

This became an issue for my administration once the permit application for a coal plant in Holcomb changed from a smaller plant, which sought to provide base-load energy to our rural areas, to a commercial plant seven times larger than what we actually need. It was at that point our environmental concerns expanded from merely improving efficiencies and conservation efforts to avoiding an unnecessary new commitment to coal.

GS: Gaining the regulatory approvals to build an electrical generating plant takes years. At what point in the permitting process did you decide to oppose it? In terms of the amount of attention the matter has received, did you realize that it would be so controversial?

KS: In Kansas, permitting decisions for power plants are made by the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). While this decision may be controversial to some legislators, it’s clear that Kansans support the secretary’s decision. 

In fact, the lack of controversy among Kansans was demonstrated by a recent poll by the Land Institute showing a two-to-one majority of Kansans agreed with the KDHE decision to deny permits for two new coal plants. The same poll also showed three out of four Kansans want the state to increase its commitment to wind-powered energy. Kansans understand that building a coal plant seven times larger than what we actually need, sends us in the wrong direction.

GS: A few years ago, a Kansas politician might have decided that refusing easy economic growth in favor of protecting people from the effects of CO2 was not something their constituents would accept, and that risking political capital on global warming was not a good bet. You sensed that you could come down on the side of the environment and a future powered by renewable energy sources and still retain the support of your political base. Most politicians don’t seem ready to take the chance.

KS: Americans are generally more concerned—and rightfully so—with having safe communities, access to health care, great schools, and well-paying jobs for themselves and their neighbors. Elected leaders are supposed to look at the big picture, at issues that may not affect citizens immediately but are extremely beneficial to the long-term condition of our society. Moving toward renewable energy provides opportunities for better-paying jobs, while helping to address concerns caused by global warming. 

I think as we continue to see droughts and other severe weather that scientists are attributing to global warming, we’re going to experience more people demanding that our leaders tackle the problem. And while health care, education, and the economy will remain a priority for voters, in a place like Kansas, where the environment has received so much attention, I think people will take the actions of their local House member or Senator into consideration come November.

GS: Finally, so far the presidential candidates have been very vague about their energy policies. If you were campaigning and had an opportunity to address these issues in a substantive way, can you give us an idea about what your policies regarding the built environment might be? Where do you stand on carbon taxes?

KS: The foundation of a comprehensive energy policy is conservation. Increasing the efficiency of energy use will save consumers and businesses money on their energy bills, while reducing the need to construct new power plants until carbon sequestration is commercially viable.

Putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions is essential if we are to move toward a low-carbon economy. I am disappointed with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s inaction in addressing climate change. Forcing the creation of  a patchwork of regulatory interventions across the nation on a state-by-state basis is not an optimal approach to this national and, ultimately, international problem. However, until the federal government takes action, states will have to continue to step up to the challenge.

While pushing for greenhouse-gas emissions policy at the federal level, we at the state level need to get through this transition period by adding a realistic degree of renewable energy in conjunction with building a strong conservation ethic into our value systems at home and in our businesses, and government institutions.

Update: Since this interview, the Kansas Legislature passed a law that would have allowed construction of the two power plants. But apparently, it will not have enough votes to override Sebelius’s veto of the bill.

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This article appeared in the April 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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