Tangled Up in Green: In Coal Blood — Finding an Alternative for Holcomb, Kansas

  • Published on March 6th, 2008

coal3.JPGEditor’s note: Welcome to “Tangled Up in Green,” Red, Green and Blue’s weekly debate over the hot issues in environmental politics. Each week, writers Ranjit Arab and Adam Bowman will “throw down the glove” on current events involving environmental policy, legislation and citizen action. Adam and Ranjit are both graduate students in journalism at the University of Kansas, and currently enrolled in Professor Simran Sethi’s “Media and the Environment” course.

Does the town of Holcomb, Kansas sound familiar?

I’m sure it does if you’ve read “In Cold Blood,” or seen the movies based on the book and its author Truman Capote.

In a perverted way that negative association has been somewhat of a godsend. People remember Holcomb; they immediately recall it as the place where a senseless and unspeakable crime was committed.

Unfortunately, it looks like Holcomb may be preparing for a sequel, featuring yet another heinous act. This time it involves the attempts of Sunflower Electric Corp.—along with several lawmakers—to force an expansion of the power company’s Holcomb facilities, which would include two hazardous coal-burning electric plants.

Call it “In Coal Blood,” if you will (sorry…if you hear a churning noise under your feet it’s probably just Mr. Capote spinning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken).

Back in October, Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, with the support of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, rejected the air permits for the company’s proposed pair of 700-megawatt coal-burning electric plants, citing the devastating impact emissions from carbon dioxide—and other greenhouse gases—would have on the environment.

In other words, it was the first time a proposed power plant had been rejected by using a “global warming” defense. This defense certainly wasn’t far-fetched. After all, the proposed plants would spew some 11 million tons of CO2 annually, making them the largest new source of such emissions in the nation.

But, of course, the battle didn’t end there.

Sunflower Electric and its supporters in the state legislature continue to try and ram this project down our throats. They insist it is needed to meet rising energy demands in western Kansas; they also argue that it will lead to much-needed economic development in one of the poorest regions of the state.

Or as Greg Brady look-alike Sen. Sam Brownback recently put it:

“Expansion of the Sunflower facility would have created 2,000 jobs during construction and an additional 400 permanent jobs and billions of dollars in economic development.”

Two thousand temporary jobs and 400 permanent ones—is that all we get for destroying the planet? Well, heck, throw in 30 pieces of silver and you got yourself a deal!

Then again, I’m sure Brownback’s job estimates are low. After all, several other jobs might be created as a result of this expansion, namely hospital receptionists, pulmonary specialists, insurance claims adjusters…

Moreover, proponents also fail to emphasize that Kansans will only receive about 10 percent of the energy generated from the plants; the remaining 90 percent will be shipped off to Colorado and Texas. They conveniently overlook the fact that all of the waste—namely mercury dumped in the water—will remain right here in Kansas.

Perhaps that, too, will create more jobs: water inspectors, Hazmat workers, not to mention the voluntary citizen soldiers needed to fight off the giant mutant fish that will threaten to take over Kansas by 2011.

Still, even Sammy B. realizes that coal alone is not the answer:

“The new coal plants would be part of an integrated bioenergy center that would have significant benefits for the environment. For example, much of the carbon produced by the coal plants would be captured and used to grow algae, which would be crushed to make biodiesel. Ethanol, another renewable fuel, would be produced onsite by using methane gas from livestock facilities.”

So let me get this straight: we only need 10 percent of the energy a plant like this would generate, and we know that alternative methods (proposed only as supplemental energy) are available, and yet we want to go ahead and produce far more than we need simply so a corporation can cut a deal with two other states, all while destroying our own water. Sounds like a plan to me!

Let’s be honest here, the plant is not about meeting surging energy demands; it’s about making money. We could meet the energy demands with a combination of alternative methods that, while not perfect, would leave a far smaller carbon footprint—I mean, Brownback didn’t even mention wind energy, which capitalizes on one of our state’s greatest natural resources.

But all of that is a hard sell to the folks of western Kansas. Times are hard in rural America.

We can—and should—argue that the coal plants are not in the best interest of the folks out west, but we need to do more than simply shoot down the proposal. We need to offer them something concrete in its place. What that entails exactly is beyond my tiny brain, but I imagine it would require bringing politicians, environmentalists, alternative energy experts, and western Kansans together to show that alternative energy and jobs can be had through far less damaging means—and that the two concepts are anything but mutually exclusive.

I hope that Holcomb eventually shakes off its reputation as the setting for one of the most brutal crimes depicted in American literature. Here’s to hoping it comes to represent the small town of the future—one that simultaneously respects the environment and the needs of its residents.

There. I think I finally made Mr. Capote stop spinning.

About the Author

Ranjit (pronounced "Run-jeet") is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Kansas, where his professor--and eco-educator extraodinaire--Simran Sethi introduced him to this amazing network of people. He is working toward using documentary filmmaking as a form of advocacy journalism--with projects mostly focusing on the contentious immigration issue. However, he also has a deep interest in both environmentalism and world politics (and, of course, sees how the topics are interrelated). When he's not taking his Humvee for meandering road trips or drilling for oil in national parks, he enjoys leaving the water running in strangers' houses, trapping endangered species of fish in the plastic rings that come with his beer, and burning styrofoam bonfires in his backyard for entertainment. Oh, and he thinks he's a funny guy (so don't encourage him)...
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  • ranjit

    Timothy, thanks for joining the discussion. I, too, thought about that whole Federalist argument, but ultimately I figured this was too intricate an episode to categorize that way. That is, it was indeed a state asserting its power to protect its own interests, but it wasn't reached through the avenues of popular vote or legislative debate; it was basically a mandate by a KDHE official (and by proxy the governor). Nothing wrong with that, in my humble opinion. They're discussing the legitmacy of that power as we speak, but I think Bremby was acting in the state's and public's best interests, so I'm behind him 100 percent.

    Anyway, I originally intended to make an argument that the same people who feel it's a state's right to develop its own rules when it comes to preventing gay marriage or to supporting the death penalty suddenly didn't think a state should have the right to say no to the pollution that happens within its borders.

    In any case, it's a complex argument–but there's definitely some of that hypocrisy at play.

  • Who'd a thunk that Holcomb,Kansas would be at the center of U.S. climate and energy policy? This issue is much more than a question of how Kansans get their power. This issue touches upon federal abdication of responsibility, and issues of federalism. Great political fodder!

    FYI: Maril Hazlett and others are doing excellent work following the Holcomb case and Kansas energy legislation at the Climate and Energy Project blog. They've been doing live blogging from hearings, updates on roll-call votes, and all kinds of other goodies.

  • ranjit

    There's no doubt that the plants would generate jobs and money for a select few, but I challenge the notion that, at the end of the day, the profits will outweigh the costs. Polluted waters, polluted skies, thousands of train cars lugging coal from across the nation…there are several hidden costs that, for obvious reasons, Sunflower Electric and its supporters won't mention.

    We can both agree that our state's energy demand is only a fraction of the proposed output and that wind energy needs to be one of the variables in the equation, so why go ahead with any coal project (clean or otherwise) when clearly less harmful methods can be used?

    The bottom line, of course, is that the coal industry–and major energy companies in general–has a stronghold on many of our politicians. As a result, these politicians are willing to emphasize the few benefits (temporary and permanent jobs, additional revenues), but aren't willing to acknowledge the true impact. Energy supply is a necessity in this modern age, but clean air and water are basic human rights–if we sacrifice the latter in pursuit of the mighty dollar, what good are all of those jobs (unless they have very good health care policies…which, of course, is highly doubtful).

    –Ranjit

  • Ranjit,

    I agree the new plants are more about making money than the desperate need for energy. But it's about making money for the community as much as it is for the company.

    I also agree that for Holcomb, wind should be on the table. But as of yet, I don't think the legislature is even discussing that as an alternative, but rather in conjunction with the coal plants.

    Another interesting morsel is that there are cleaner coal technologies out there than what the Holcomb plant extension is proposing. The coal gasification process is cleaner, and easier to separate the harmful CO2 from the mix. Then CO2 sequestration should be discussed as well if the state is bent on coal.

    Morning thoughts,

    -Adam