Oil prices are dominating the headlines, but important developments are rattling other parts of the far-flung energy business, too – including a potential watershed moment for the coal industry.
Last week, in a victory for Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, her foes in the state legislature abandoned efforts to overturn her veto of a bill that would have essentially forced her to accept the construction of two new coal-fired power plants in the western part of her state. Coal plant plans are drawn up and dropped all the time, but these were different.
That’s because last October, Kansas became the first state ever to reject an air permit for a new coal plant because of greenhouse gas emissions. The state’s health and environment secretary rejected the permit, citing last year’s Supreme Court decision, which said that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been dawdling about coming up with those regulations, but the Kansas decision raises the prospect that proposed new coal plants could run into licensing problems at the state level.
Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club lawyer in Wisconsin, has been active in fighting against new coal plants throughout the Midwest. Last week he was ecstatic. “This is a major epic heartland battle that has changed the thinking about new coal… If this is not a sign that there is a new day of clean energy coming, I don’t know what is,” he said.
“This is not one of those radical east coast states. This is Kansas.” What’s next? I asked him last week. “There are 86 plants left,” he said. “Our work is far from done.”
Even for those less partisan in the fight against coal, the Kansas fight is important. Coal-fired plants provide half the electricity in the United States, but as a sense of urgency about climate change mounts, there will be more and more focus on the carbon dioxide emissions from those plants. Carbon capture and storage techniques at a commercial scale are probably at least a decade away, and environmentalists and climatologists want to rely on conservation and renewable energy for the time being and at least delay new coal plants until new technologies are tested.
The end of the Kansas fight also comes at an interesting political moment. Sebelius has been a strong supporter of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and she’s usually mentioned as being among those Obama might consider as a running mate. If so, her performance in this fight will be seen as a key test of her political abilities.