Stunned by the turnout one evening last November, state employees stood in the hallway of the Kansas Memorial Union on the University of Kansas campus like a pack of deer in headlights. Two Lawrence police officers who'd been expecting an easy night baby-sitting a public meeting were suddenly standing at attention outside the Malott Room. As the crowd pressed in, a KU official beat back complaints with increasingly flustered refrains of "no, this is the biggest room we have available tonight."
Who knew that hundreds would show up to voice their opinions about an air permit for a couple of power plants in tiny Holcomb — a good six-hour drive from the KU campus? Certainly not the Kansas Department of Health and Environment employees, who scrambled to get people signed in to speak during the hearing. As the corridor teemed with increasingly agitated people from cities across eastern Kansas, the few state and university officials clearly worried that they had a riot of students, scholars and otherwise mild-mannered Midwesterners on their hands.
An hour before the meeting, environmental activists had held a press conference down the hall. Charles Benjamin, then a lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club, had explained that the group was opposed to the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation's plans to build two new power plants.
Local and national environmentalists were fired up because the new complex would burn massive amounts of coal, potentially endangering the health of Kansans and spewing carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
"Kansas will be number one in something," Benjamin said sarcastically. "We'll become the poster child for global warming."
By the time the press conference broke, a crowd was milling in the hallway. People grumbled that the hearing had been hijacked. The state had reserved a room that could seat only 100 people, and 50 of those seats were occupied by professionally dressed western Kansans — many of them employees of Sunflower Electric and the Garden City Chamber of Commerce — who were eager to support a power plant that they viewed as an economic engine.
Outside, 200 people had come to oppose a plan that they saw as an environmental catastrophe.
After the hearing began at 7 p.m., KDHE officials were constantly interrupted by angry attendees as police tried to thin the over-capacity crowd.
"I will not move. This is my constitutional right!" a student protested, snatching his arm from the grasp of a police officer trying to lead him into the hallway.
"This meeting is a joke," another man yelled as he was escorted out.
When it became obvious that the crowd wouldn't disperse, KU employees opened a room next door. They ran a microphone from the hearing so that everyone could hear. Hundreds of people had signed up to speak. When the moderator called the name of one of those waiting in the adjacent room, the speaker would dash across the hall, with fellow citizens cheering as if the person were a football player running onto a field.
As the night wore on, dozens of doctors and farmers (and kids so young, they could barely see over the lectern) talked about Sunflower's project squandering precious water, polluting the air and failing to cash in on Kansas' best energy asset: wind.
With the Union closing at 11 p.m., it was obvious that not everyone would get a chance to speak.
"How about we sit down outside the door until we get a commitment for another hearing?" a voice yelled from the back. "Don't let them out of the building!"
Marci Francisco, a Democratic state senator from Lawrence, took the mic.
"I think we need to talk about how we might want to respond by contacting the governor," she said.
Over the next eight months, though, it would become clear that Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius has distanced herself from the state's biggest energy battle.
Holcomb is 400 miles west of KU. Named after a local hog farmer, the town was immortalized by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, about the murder of the Clutter family there.
Now the town of 2,000 is making national news again as the city with plans to build a massive new coal-fired power complex, when the rest of the nation is trying to scale back its reliance on a fuel that adds to global warming.
The Sunflower Electric Power Corporation already owns one coal-fired power plant in Holcomb. Sunflower boasts that the facility has been a model of environmental responsibility over the past two decades. When it was built in 1983, says Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller, the plant was the seventh-cleanest coal-fired plant in the country. Since then, it has never been cited for any environmental violations. In fact, Sunflower recently partnered with the federal government to test new techniques to remove significant amounts of mercury — a toxic metal — from the gases streaming out of its smokestacks.
In February 2006, Sunflower told the KDHE that it intended to build three new, bigger plants. This June, the company pulled one of the plants from its application, but Miller says the third plant isn't off the table; it's just delayed.
He says the company needs the extra power to satisfy the growing demands of its 122,000 customers spread across the western half of the state. The company looked into adding wind turbines — Kansas is ranked third in the nation for wind-power potential — but decided that burning coal from Wyoming would be cheaper and more reliable.
Because it had the space to build big, Sunflower also went shopping for energy customers outside state lines.
With interest from companies that supply electricity to Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, Sunflower had plans to build a full 1,400 megawatts — roughly enough to light up all the homes in Johnson and Wyandotte counties. If approved, Sunflower's plant would make the small Kansas town home to one of the biggest new coal complexes west of the Mississippi River.
Sunflower has enjoyed the support of some of the state's most powerful lawmakers.
At their homes in Ingalls and Hugoton, House Speaker Melvin Neufeld and Senate President Stephen Morris both use power generated by Sunflower.
Neufeld says western Kansans see the coal plants as vital to the region's economic growth. A study by Fort Hays State University professor Ralph Gamble (commissioned by Sunflower) estimates that the new complex would create 2,000 jobs during the construction of the plants and 400 permanent jobs once the $3 billion project is complete. Over the lifetime of the plants, Gamble projects, the total economic benefit to the state could exceed $8 billion.
"I don't know of a larger economic- development project that's ever occurred in Kansas," says Sunflower spokesman Miller.
But the project would have a dramatic environmental impact as well.
According to the draft permit, plants would release 8 million pounds of nitrogen oxide and 11 million pounds of sulfur dioxide — key components in smog and acid rain — and would spew 17 million pounds of carbon monoxide (a cause of respiratory ailments) and 1,100 pounds of mercury (which has been linked to autism and birth defects).
The coal plants would also suck up more than 5 billion gallons of water each year from the quickly depleting Ogallala aquifer, which supplies vital irrigation to Kansas crops.
Topping the list of environmental problems is the emission of carbon dioxide, the gas widely considered most responsible for global warming. Already, Kansas is ranked 10th in the country when it comes to most CO2 pollution per capita. (Kansas gets 75 percent of its electricity from coal. That keeps energy cheap, but it means the state creates nearly 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. Earlier this year, an Associated Press analysis concluded that each Kansan produces 14 tons of carbon dioxide each year, nearly twice the national average of 8 tons.)
The Holcomb complex would add another 10 million tons of carbon dioxide to Kansas skies each year.
Western Kansas residents such as Senate President Morris and House Speaker Neufeld say they're not worried about the environmental implications.
"We have a lot of those kinds of things worldwide, and this is just a drop in the bucket compared to what's out there, I suppose, in terms of global warming," Morris says.
"The people that are opposing the plant forget that we grow a lot of corn out here, and corn uses up all the CO2 it can get," Neufeld says.
Both Neufeld and Morris stress that Kansas needs the power.
But locals will use only a small portion of it. With the vast majority of the power bound for consumers as far away as New Mexico and Texas, less than 15 percent of Holcomb's new electricity would provide power to homes and businesses in Kansas.
To Bill Griffith, the Kansas Sierra Club's legal chairman, that's a no-win situation.
"They get 90 percent of the electricity, and we get 100 percent of the pollution," Griffith says.
Typically, the state chapters of the Sierra Club handle their own local campaigns. But the national organization is throwing its larger weight behind the opposition to Sunflower. The size of the project, the sea change in public opinion about global warming, the opportunity to satisfy Kansas' manageable population with the abundant wind resources, Griffith says, have put a spotlight on the Sunflower State.
And on Sebelius.
"We figured out a long time ago," Griffith says, "that she's in favor of these plants." Gov. Sebelius has graced the pages of Time as one of the nation's top five governors and made Newsweek's list of "Who's Next 2007." She was elected by her peers as chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association late last year, and her name has come up as a potential vice presidential candidate in 2008.
Over the past five years, Sebelius has built a reputation as a moderate leader. With a willingness to work both sides of the partisan aisle, the governor balanced the state budget in her first year in office and has made progress on issues such as education and economic development, despite Kansas' deeply divided political landscape.
During her first term, Sebelius appointed Republicans to her cabinet. When she ran a second time in 2006, the governor inspired other conservatives, such as Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, to switch parties.
In her 2007 State of the State address, Sebelius sounded serious about climate change. "There can be no doubt, our current energy sources are causing dramatic, even dangerous changes to our climate," she said.
She explained that she'd met with leaders of Kansas utilities. "We discussed the need to diversify our energy sources and to promote alternatives to coal. It's [coal's] economically cheap, but its health and environmental costs are rising."
She pledged to work out an agreement with electric producers to generate more power from wind and to secure $1 million in state funding for an agency to help transport that clean power. She made good on both of those promises.
This past spring, the governor also signed an executive order increasing energy efficiency in government buildings and she hired an auditor to oversee the state's new conservation initiatives. When Greensburg was leveled by a tornado, she took the lead in advocating that the town be rebuilt to green-construction standards and powered with renewable energy.
But faced with the state's most contentious energy issue, Sebelius has compromised her new green ethic.
The governor declined the Pitch's requests for an interview to discuss her opinions about the Sunflower expansion and her vision for Kansas energy production. Instead, she responded — selectively — to a list of written questions.
"Developing a safe and dependable mix of electrical generation to support growing demand not just in Kansas but worldwide, is an enormously complex issue for which there is no silver bullet solution," the governor wrote when asked her stance on the new coal-fired power plants.
"Kansas is blessed with greater wind resources than most other states," she added. "Therefore, adding wind generation to the Kansas electrical generation portfolio is part of the solution — but we cannot expect it to be THE solution."
In coming years, Sebelius wrote, new technology will make coal generation far cleaner and less damaging to the environment.
"The basic question is, can we get by for 5 to 10 years by adding wind to the mix while we wait for the availability of new technology? I believe it is possible if we use our existing supplies more efficiently and reduce consumption of electricity through conservation....
"I want to see us get through this transition period by focusing on adding a realistic degree of renewable energy in conjunction with building a strong conservation ethic."
But Sebelius seems to contradict herself. Though she says she believes it's possible to wait for new technology that will make coal cleaner, she declines to address whether she has considered a moratorium on new coal plants.
She says she'd like to see Kansas navigate a complex energy era by focusing on wind energy and conservation but she does not express any reservation about the Holcomb expansion, which would further entrench a coal-fired system.
She says she wants to reduce consumption and use energy more efficiently to stretch Kansas' current supply of electricity but she declines to address whether the state could use those measures to make up for the small increase in power that the state would get from Sunflower's new plants.
After all, only 200 megawatts of the new power will serve Kansas residents — just a little more juice than is generated by the Butler County wind farm south of Beaumont. On a frigid Saturday morning in December, more than 100 Kansans rallied at the Capitol to tell Sebelius that her middle-of-the-road leadership was leaving her on the wrong side of the Sunflower issue. With mitten-covered hands, they held homemade signs with slogans aimed at the governor.
"Governor Sebelius: Just Say No!"
"Kathleen: Save Us From Fossil Fools!"
"Wind Good. Coal Bad."
Many of the placards had been printed on the back of "Sebelius '06" yard signs left over from the November election, a race in which the popular governor failed to gain the Sierra Club's endorsement because of her weak environmental record.
On a table stocked with hot chocolate, the Sierra Club provided sample letters to Sebelius. "Demand Governor Sebelius use her leadership to do what's right," fliers urged.
Griffith told the crowd that Kansans needed to draw a line in the sand and reject dirty power. The state is at a crossroads, he said, and the governor has the power to propose a moratorium on new coal plants.
"She's done it before. There is precedent," he said.
In 2003, when wind developers were eyeing sites in the Flint Hills, Sebelius put a hold on any new construction while a blue ribbon panel studied the issue. As a result, the governor designated a 60-mile swath as off-limits to wind farms.
With global warming threatening erratic weather and more frequent drought in Kansas, a half-dozen other speakers argued, a moratorium on coal would be the only responsible action.
"We do not want them to make a mistake of historic proportions," Griffith said.
Last September, Sebelius' press secretary, Nicole Corcoran, told Platts Coal Trader magazine that the governor would consider a moratorium on new coal plants if the Kansas Energy Council recommended it. (In 2004, Sebelius appointed the 35-member council of energy stakeholders — from citizen activists to utility executives — who advise the governor on energy policy.) But Ken Frahm, co-chairman of the council, says the group has not dealt with the issue of Sunflower's expansion. "She has not directly asked us to study it at all," he says of Sebelius.
Appointee Sarah Dean says global warming has been conspicuously absent from the group's agenda since the governor created the council three years ago. A longtime Sebelius supporter, Dean says it wasn't until this winter — after the uproar over Sunflower — that greenhouse gases became a topic of discussion.
Sebelius did ask the Kansas Corporation Commission (the state agency that regulates public utilities) to study the economics of adding wind to the Kansas power grid. That research assessed the real price of dirtier coal-fired power by adding the health costs to Kansans and the impact on the state's environment.
In correspondence with the Pitch, Corcoran initially suggested that the research had been completed. But when asked for a copy, the press secretary said the study was still "in the final edit stage." Information in the study could factor into the debate about Sunflower's expansion; Corcoran now says it will be released "in the near future."
Meanwhile, thanks to Sebelius, Kansas is starting to tap into its lucrative wind resources. In May, the governor and Kansas energy executives held a press conference to announce an agreement in which the six utilities vowed that wind would supply 10 percent of the state's power by 2010. The governor's office estimates that the current slate of new wind projects will put Kansas at 11 percent by the end of the decade.
But that impressive statistic doesn't factor in 1,400 megawatts of new coal power, which would overshadow the projected 1,100 megawatts of new, clean power from wind.
In fact, Griffith says, all of the governor's green initiatives would be overshadowed — or directly undermined — by the new plants at Holcomb.
With a life expectancy of more than 50 years, the new plants would also make some of the state's environmental efforts more difficult. For instance, this summer, Kansas signed on to the Climate Registry, in which officials from more than three dozen states hope to establish a system to track global-warming pollution, then work with states to reduce their greenhouse gases. But with Kansas poised to add another 10 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, finding ways to cut greenhouse gases would be hard.
Sebelius has been working behind the scenes to move energy production in a cleaner direction, Tom Thompson says. He served in the Kansas House with Sebelius in the early 1990s, sits on the executive board of the Kansas Democratic Party and lobbied for the Sierra Club during the 2007 session. "When she wants to, she can be very hands-on," he says.
But other state leaders — even Republicans — have been doing more. In February, governors from seven states created the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And governors from New Jersey, Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico and Washington have signed executive orders directing reductions in their states' global-warming gases by 2010.
Under the direction of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Public Utilities Commission announced earlier this year that it wouldn't allow utilities to purchase electricity from coal-fired power plants because they cough up too much carbon dioxide. In Florida, after pressuring Florida Power and Light to kill a proposed coal-fired power plant, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist held a press conference to applaud state regulators for denying the company's permit last month.
Crist also signed an executive order directing Florida regulators to set greenhouse-gas limits for state utilities.
That's what Sarah Dean wants the state of Kansas to do: Take carbon dioxide into consideration before it gives any power plant the go-ahead. But without a sympathetic leader like Crist or Schwarzenegger in the governor's mansion, Sarah and Ray Dean are suing the state of Kansas to try to get it done.
As an appointee to the Kansas Energy Council, Dean knows that the KDHE doesn't consider carbon dioxide a pollutant and doesn't take the greenhouse gas into account when it's reviewing an air-permit application.
Initially, the Deans petitioned the KDHE to classify CO2 as an air pollutant and to reconsider the Sunflower permit. They argued that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate CO2. The Deans reasoned that Kansas should follow the highest court in the land.
State officials disagreed. Yvonne Anderson, general counsel for the KDHE, replied that the state of Kansas doesn't have to act on CO2 until federal laws are established.
"This is a huge deal to an awful lot of people, and there's an awful lot at stake," says Reid Nelson, one of the Deans' attorneys. "But you'd get more due process contesting a traffic ticket than we're getting here."
They won't get any help from the governor. In her written responses to the Pitch, Sebelius says she favors federal laws to curb greenhouse gases but is opposed to states taking action on their own.
And time is running out on the Sunflower issue. The KDHE staffer who worked on the air permit tells the Pitch that the decision on whether to issue it was making its way up the ranks to the fifth-floor office of KDHE Secretary Roderick Bremby.
After nearly a year of debate, a decision is likely to come soon. Before the KDHE can issue or renew a permit, the agency is bound by Kansas law to hold public hearings and review input from state residents. Often, such comment periods come and go with little feedback from citizens. But during a three-month period at the end of 2006, the KDHE received more than 650 letters and e-mails about the Sunflower permit. They're enough to fill two cardboard boxes and have kept KDHE staff members tied up for more than six months reading and responding.
Some of the comments urge the KDHE to approve the coal plant in the name of economic development. Sunflower officials collected a dozen city ordinances in favor of the expansion and submitted them in a red binder. A form letter from Garden City produced dozens of identical comments backing the plant.
But the majority of the letters are from citizens from across the state: handwritten notes on pastel-colored stationery alongside typed technical analyses outlining concerns about global warming and water depletion and the health of their children. A minister in Olathe, a farmer in Salina, an oncologist in Wichita, a grandmother in McLouth — all have asked the KDHE to deny Sunflower's air permit.
The KDHE has also heard an earful from officials and organizations beyond Kansas. Attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin submitted a collective letter urging the KDHE to deny the permit. The letter highlights efforts in other states to curb global warming and notes that the KDHE would be "seriously undermining the concerted efforts being undertaken by multiple states" if it approved the coal-plant expansion.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that pollution from the new plants would taint a national wilderness 200 miles away. The Environmental Protection Agency feared that the KDHE would give Sunflower a break with lax restrictions on a pollutant that causes acid rain.
But hundreds of letters in the KDHE's boxes aren't addressed to the department at all.
Folders marked "Governor's Office" are full of correspondence from Kansas constituents communicating directly to Sebelius.
According to Sebelius' press secretary, the office received so much mail during the comment period that it lost count of how many letters it forwarded to the KDHE.
Many begin with "Congratulations on your re-election." Some end with simple affirmations such as "I know you can fix this; I trust you."
There are letters from dedicated Democrats who serve as precinct chairs in their hometowns and from lifelong Republicans won over by Sebelius' moderate leadership style. Nearly all of the letters plead with the governor to put a stop to the plants.
"I felt an overwhelming gush of pride when I voted for the first time in a midterm election.... So it disturbs me when I see that the official I helped to elect is actually considering allowing Sunflower Electric Power Corp to construct coal-fired power plants ..." — Kari Cozad, Lawrence
"Please don't be a hypocrite! Your Web site states, 'I'm working to make sure Kansas takes advantage of its opportunity to become a leader in renewable energy.' We cannot become a leader in renewable energy if Kansas builds new coal power.... As of right now, you're all talk, lady!" — Kaedden Timi, Overland Park
"I voted for you in the last election.... However, I am very saddened by your stand on this issue.... It will take very strong leadership from your office to take on the coal lobby. If not you, who? If not now, when?" — Jerry Brown, Salina
"I was your postman about 15 years ago when your family lived on Greenwood in Potwin. I am asking you to intercede in the Holcomb power-plant expansion. I know that you are well aware of the ill effects of the coal power production." — John Baker
The comment period closed in December, but since then, the governor's office has received another 400 e-mails from across the country opposing the plant, Corcoran says. In recent weeks, another 150 letters and e-mails have come from business interests in western Kansas urging the governor to support the expansion.
"This really is a global issue," KDHE spokesman Joe Blubaugh says. "I've seen reports on this from international newspapers. It's really caught the world's eye."
Now that the analysis is done, it's up to Bremby to approve, reject or modify the permit. Blubaugh says the KDHE will give 72 hours' notice before the final announcement.
But that's not the end of what could become a long legal battle. "We're prepared, financially, to go to the mat on this," the Sierra Club's Griffith says.
Sebelius' staffers emphasize that the Sunflower permit is Bremby's decision.
But Griffith says the decision will reflect on the governor. "The governor has the authority, when something is inherently dangerous to Kansas, to say, No, I won't allow it," he says. "It's within the bounds of her office because the KDHE reports to her."
Dean agrees that Sebelius is the one who should be calling the shots on issues of such importance. "She appoints the secretary of Health and Environment, and that secretary is beholden to her," Dean says.
Even House Speaker Neufeld is holding the governor responsible for the KDHE's decision.
"If it's not approved, [that's because] the governor told the KDHE not to approve the pollution permit," Neufeld says. "It's the governor who's going to stop this, if it's going to be stopped, which I certainly hope doesn't happen. That wouldn't be in the best interest of Kansas."
What's a celebrated, bipartisan governor to do? Apparently, keep her mouth shut.