Regulator Who Blocked Kansas Coal Plants Ousted by Governor
Two years ago, Kansas’ top environmental official became the first state regulator in the country to deny a permit for new coal-fired power plants based on the health and environmental risks posed by carbon dioxide pollution. On Tuesday, as mid-term elections dominated the news, he lost his job.
Environmental advocates say it’s clear why Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson got rid of Roderick Bremby, the state’s Secretary of Health and Environment: The company that he denied permits to in the past is back again. And this time, there’s a deadline -- in January, new federal rules on greenhouse gas emissions begin to take effect. If Sunflower Electric Power Corporation receives a state air-quality permit before that date, its proposed plant would be grandfathered under the current standards.
"It was a midnight execution," says NRDC senior advocate Theo Spencer. "When everybody’s eyes were on the election, the governor fires the guy who was responsible for protecting public health and the environment so he can ram this power plant through against public opinion."
The governor’s office denies that Bremby’s dismissal had anything to do with coal, calling it a routine staffing matter in a statement. On Tuesday, the governor asked Bremby to step down from his post and take a new job as head of a cabinet transition team -- or be fired. When Bremby refused, he lost his job.
"All cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the governor," spokesperson Amy Jordan Wooden said. "It was Governor Parkinson’s wish that Rod Bremby take on an important transition role over the next few months" as a newly elected governor comes in to replace the outgoing Parkinson. "Mr. Bremby declined that position. … The governor has not done anything to accelerate or slow down the permitting process on the Sunflower plant."
But Scott Allegrucci, director of the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy (GPACE), says "there isn't anyone in the state who doesn't know what this was about." He’s certain Bremby was removed to clear the way for someone willing to expedite the air permit for Sunflower’s proposed 895-megawatt coal plant in western Kansas and allow it to avoid the looming EPA rules, which would require more pollution-control technologies that could make the plant more costly to build.
A Sunflower spokesperson did not return calls for this story. Sunflower’s website promises the new plant would "be among the cleanest power plants of its kind, using the best available technology to reduce the emission of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter." Less than a quarter of the proposed plant’s electricity would be used in Kansas; most would go to utilities in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.
A week before Bremby’s ouster, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity released a study it commissioned from Kansas State University economists. They said the new plant would create 1,900 construction jobs, 88 permanent jobs, and generate $40 million in sales tax revenue per year. Allegrucci notes that the study ignores health and environmental costs.
Since Bremby denied permits to Sunflower in 2007, saying it would be "irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health," the controversy has come to symbolize a contentious debate over Kansas’ energy future.
"Fossil fuel interests are very powerful in Kansas," NRDC’s Spencer says. "They play an outsized role in Kansas politics and have a huge impact on the Kansas legislature."
As lieutenant governor to Kathleen Sebelius in 2007, Parkinson vocally supported Bremby’s fight with Sunflower. After Bremby denied the permits, Sunflower launched a protracted legal and legislative battle. The state legislature voted to allow the new plants, and Sebelius vetoed it.
Parkinson took over in 2009 after Sebelius was named President Obama’s U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. The new governor negotiated an agreement that would have let Sunflower build a single 895-megawatt plant instead of the two 700-megawatt ones the company wanted, provided that Sunflower shutter several older coal plants and build transmission lines to the west to export Kansas wind energy. Critics say these things would have happened even without the agreement, which wasn’t made public until it was already signed.
"What’s become clear is [the governor] does not value or consider credible the environmental threat the coal plant poses," Allegrucci says. "His pitched rhetoric while he was lieutenant governor was either extraordinarily duplicitous, or he was just carrying water for [Sebelius] and it wasn’t how he really felt."
Parkinson’s agreement with Sunflower essentially gutted the power of the state’s health and environment secretary to "affirm, modify or reverse a decision on an air quality permit." Bremby’s role was reduced to overseeing a public comment and bureaucratic process. Even so, things appeared to be proceeding too slowly for the permit to be granted before January.
Allegrucci notes that even if Bremby’s replacement supports the Sunflower proposal, there is no way that the 6,000 public comments collected could honestly be reviewed and a decision made before the end of the year.
"One of the concerns is the attempt to disregard all that public input," he said. "Bremby did not sign off on the settlement agreement and has been trying to protect the integrity of the permitting process ever since … despite constant efforts by Sunflower, its lobbyists, and elected Kansas officials to tamper with that permitting process."