Sunflower decision spurs $789,000 in lobbyist spending for Kansas coal-fired plants

Sunflower decision spurs $789,000 in lobbyist spending for Kansas coal-fired plants

Lobbyists have reported spending more than $789,000 during the ongoing debate over two proposed coal-fired power plants in southwest Kansas, most of it on efforts to sway public opinion.

Opponents of the plants initially reported putting far more money into their public relations campaign. But since the year began, supporters have reported six times as much spending, reports filed by individual lobbyists show.

The dueling campaigns are unusual for their intensity and for their focus on trying to build outside pressure on legislators.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. wants to build the two plants outside Holcomb, in Finney County. But the $3.6 billion project has been blocked since October by Rod Bremby, secretary of health and environment.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed a bill last month to allow the plants and to strip the secretary of some power. Legislators approved a second, similar measure; it reached her desk Monday, but she’s expected to reject it as well.

“Clearly the new coal bill has the same features that resulted in the governor vetoing the previous coal bill,” spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said Tuesday.

Of the more than $789,000 spent over the past six months, almost 99 percent has been spent either on advertising or on other efforts to build outside pressure. Typically, the biggest expenditure for most lobbyists has been providing free meals, drinks and snacks to legislators.

“I think it’s the most efficient and effective way to get our message out to people,” said Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller. “That message out to the public ultimately translates into input to the legislators.”

Sebelius has until April 24 to decide whether to veto the second measure, sign it or let it become law without her signature. However, it contains the same provisions that caused her to veto the first measure.

“We’ve always known that we’re the little guy here in this fight,” said Chris Cardinal, an organizer for the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy, which opposes Sunflower’s project. “That’s why we had to take it out to the people.”

Sunflower’s project enjoys bipartisan legislative support because many lawmakers view it as economic development and an important part of meeting the state’s future power needs.

But Bremby cited the plants’ potential carbon dioxide emissions of up to 11 million tons a year in denying an air-quality permit to Sunflower. He said the state couldn’t ignore the dangers of global warming, which many scientists link to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year, Kansans for Affordable Energy, a group financed by Sunflower and Peabody Energy Corp., a St. Louis company with major coal interests, responded to Bremby’s decision with a $102,000 newspaper ad campaign attacking it.

A group opposed to Sunflower’s project, Know Your Power, responded with its own full-page newspaper ads, costing nearly $406,000. The ads said the group is funded by Chesapeake Energy Corp., of Oklahoma City, the nation’s largest supplier of natural gas.

Miller said backers of Sunflower’s project in western Kansas began pressuring it to respond.

“They said, why aren’t you fighting?” he said. “We concluded they were right.”

Know Your Power’s campaign was notable because no group or company has reported spending so much on lobbying in a single year. Also, the ads for and against Sunflower’s project pushed total lobbyist spending in 2007 to nearly $1.17 million, a record.

Since the beginning of the year, companies or groups involved in the debate over the coal plants have spent another $282,000 on lobbying, the majority of it on advertising. Less than $40,000 of that has been spent by opponents.

“We don’t have the upper hand here,” Cardinal said. “We don’t have a lot of resources. All we have are people.”

This year, Sunflower has spent nearly $107,000 on print and broadcast advertising, including more than $14,000 in March.

Another group, the Alliance for Sound Energy Policy, has spent about $80,000 on advertising to promote Sunflower’s project. Sunflower helped form the group, but its members include powerful organizations such as the Kansas Chamber and the Kansas AFL-CIO.

In February, the Center for Energy and Economic Development, a pro-coal group based in Alexandria, Va., also entered the debate. It has spent nearly $40,000 on communications designed to get its members and supporters to pressure legislators.

The Great Plains alliance countered with radio and television spots in a $36,000 campaign. One TV ad promotes wind farms, saying, “We don’t need hot air from lawmakers. We need clean air for our children’s future.”

(This version CORRECTS total to $789,000, sted $790,000; ADDS statement from governor.)


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