TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators opposed to regulating greenhouse gases are doubly upset because the federal government is forcing the state into limiting emissions, and they don't yet see a good strategy for preventing it.
Some members of a legislative committee reviewing new rules from the federal Environmental Protection Agency argued last week that regulating greenhouse gases will hurt the economy. The committee had a hearing to allow regional EPA officials to explain the changes but used the meeting to vent their frustrations.
EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks described states as vital partners in protecting air quality, promised that the EPA is open to comments and welcomed a vigorous debate.
But Brooks and Mark Smith, the regional chief of air permitting and compliance, also made it clear that Kansas will be regulating the manmade greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, whether legislators like the idea or not.
Several committee members briefly broached the idea of mounting a legal challenge to the EPA, like one Texas is pursuing. But the idea makes utilities in Kansas nervous because it creates the possibility that the EPA eventually could step in and cut Kansas out of the process of issuing air-quality permit.
"On principal, we ought to do that," said Rep. Forrest Knox, a conservative Altoona Republican. "But you've got to deal with the practical in the world."
Legislators' angst over the EPA arises in the context of Kansas' heavy reliance on coal to fuel its power plants.
Some legislators, including Knox, are openly skeptical of science linking climate change to manmade greenhouse gases to climate change. And utilities have long had far more influence with legislators than environmentalists.
Also, there's also bipartisan legislative support for plans by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment hopes to decide on an air-quality permit for the Hays-based utility by the end of the year — ahead of the new greenhouse gas regulations. But if the process takes longer, the new regulations will apply.
The new EPA rules take effect Jan. 2 and will require power plants, large factories and oil refineries to use the best available technology to control greenhouse gas emissions.
The EPA has directed Kansas to revise its program for issuing air-quality permits for such sites to cover greenhouse gas emissions. KDHE officials expect to submit a proposal to the EPA by Dec. 1.
The state could refuse, of course, but Smith told the legislative committee that if Kansas won't submit a proposal, the EPA could impose its own plan for enforcing federal clean air laws.
Both Brooks and Smith described the new rules as "commonsense" standards targeted only at the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. They said the agency was compelled to act by federal court decisions and took hundreds of thousands of comments.
Smith made a point of noting that the greenhouse gas rules will apply to new plants, factories and new refineries only if they produce 100,000 tons of emissions a year or more — four times the threshold EPA originally considered.
Brooks said the EPA is delaying regulations for other businesses for six years to give Congress a chance to step in.
And Chris Cardinal, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club's state chapter, told the committee the new regulations are long overdue.
"Continued inaction to slow global warming is irresponsible, as there is a shared responsibility to protect the environment, the public health and vulnerable, at-risk communities," he testified.
But none of those arguments mollified the committee.
Rep. Carl Dean Holmes, a Republican from Liberal who's long been influential in energy debates, suggested President Barack Obama's administration of deliberately trying to raise energy prices and export manufacturing jobs overseas.
Sen. Janis Lee, a Kensington Democrat, said despite the talk of states as partners, Kansas has no real control over the regulations.
Sen. Mark Taddiken, a Clifton Republican, asked whether, after six years, EPA will revise its rules so that they hit small businesses. Brooks acknowledged he can't predict the future.
"Our concern is, where are they headed next?" Taddiken said.
Some Kansas legislators are watching the dispute between Texas and the EPA, now before a federal appeals court.
In June, the EPA declared that Texas' "flexible" permitting program masks air pollution and violates the federal Clean Air Act. Texas challenged the ruling, with Gov. Rick Perry citing it as an example of the Obama administration overreaching.
There's significant sympathy among legislators for an aggressive response to the EPA.
Earlier this year, Sen. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative Fowler Republican, successfully added an amendment to the state budget to block KDHE from spending any money to draft rules on greenhouse gas emissions — setting up a legal battle with the EPA.
But Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson vetoed the provision after Sunflower and Westar Energy Inc., the state's largest electric company, expressed concern that the EPA would take over permitting, cutting out KDHE. Brooks hinted as much in a letter to Parkinson.
"We believe the KDHE understands the distinct and unique facets of each Kansas source and is in a better position to manage the air quality regulations," Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertels said.
In Texas, oil companies, fearing lengthy permitting delays for refineries, have pushed legislators to lobby state regulators to resolve their disputes with the EPA quickly.
As for a potential confrontation between Kansas and the EPA, Taddiken said, "It's nice to know the outcome before you go down that road."
Thus, many Kansas legislators are stuck complaining about the EPA while feeling relatively powerless to stop its rules, absent a change in presidential administrations.
EDITOR'S NOTE: John Hanna has covered state government and politics since 1987.