February 19, 2008

Kansas Agency Denies Air Quality Construction Permit for Coal-Fired Generating Units Based Solely on Projected CO2 Emissions

Posted on February 19, 2008 by Charles Efflandt

On October 18, 2007, the head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), Secretary Roderick Bremby, denied an air quality permit application for two proposed 700-megawatt coal-fired generating units to be constructed in Holcomb, Kansas. The application was submitted by Sunflower Electric Power Company as part of a planned $3.6 billion expansion of an existing facility. The Secretary’s decision to deny the permit was based solely on the projected carbon dioxide emissions from these units and the impact of such emissions on climate change. Carbon dioxide is not specifically regulated as an air pollutant in Kansas.

In announcing his decision, which rejected the recommendation of agency staff that the permit be granted, the Secretary stated “I believe 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 if we do nothing.” The expanded facility was projected to release an estimated 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. The Secretary did not indicate at what level projected carbon dioxide emissions would, in his opinion, threaten human health and the environment. Thus, the Secretary left open the question of how other CO2 emitting facilities would be regulated in Kansas in the future. Although a number of states have entered into regional initiatives or enacted legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time, it is believed that KDHE’s outright denial of an air quality permit based solely on perceived “excessive” emissions of an unregulated greenhouse gas is a first in the nation.

The cited legal support for the decision is an opinion of the Kansas Attorney General that, notwithstanding specific statutes or rules regulating air emissions, K.S.A. 65-3012 gives KDHE the broad authority to take any permitting or other action deemed necessary should the Secretary make a factual determination that a particular emission constitutes an air pollutant and that such emissions threaten health or the environment. The “factual determination” supporting the Secretary’s conclusion that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant and that this particular facility’s projected carbon dioxide emissions would constitute a threat to health and the environment is not apparent from the permit denial decision.

On November 16, 2007, Sunflower Electric Power Corporation filed two lawsuits seeking to overturn KDHE’s permit denial decision challenging the legal authority for the agency’s decision.

Not surprisingly, the KDHE’s permit denial decision has generated substantial controversy. A media campaign was immediately launched by those opposing the KDHE’s decision. The theme of that campaign is that the Secretary’s claimed authority could logically be extended to other facilities and potentially other unregulated emissions to the general detriment of the state and its ability to attract and retain business.

In a subsequent action perceived as an attempt to diffuse this criticism, the Secretary announced the decision to approve an air quality permit for an ethanol plant, notwithstanding the facility’s carbon dioxide emissions. Although the projected CO2emissions from the ethanol facility are substantially less than those of the proposed coal-fired generating plant, the KDHE’s approval of the ethanol plant permit did not elaborate on the specific factual and scientific bases for distinguishing the facilities. Thus, it remains unclear in Kansas what quantity of projected carbon dioxide emissions may exceed the unspecified level deemed by KDHE to constitute an unacceptable global warming threat.

State law-makers in both chambers of the legislature are presently considering several bills directed at the Secretary’s permit denial decision. Provisions of the various bills include legislation specifically “over-turning” the Secretary’s decision, the enactment of phased-in limitations on COemissions with a “carbon tax” penalty for violators, and a variety of alternative energy incentives and requirements. Most of the bills being considered are being opposed by the governor and environmental groups as being hastily conceived and inadequate to meet the future health and regulatory challenges of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

For more information please contact Charles Efflandt, practice group leader of the Environmental and Natural Resources team, Foulston Siefkin L.L.P., Wichita, Kansas http://www.foulston.com.

Tags: permitting

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