Rod Bremby: The Man Who Put a Red State on the Green Map

Roderick Bremby, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, is a force of nature. He stood up to big coal interests in Kansas and, quite simply, said "no." Secretary Bremby is the first person in U.S. history to deny permits for coal plants on the basis of carbon dioxide emissions, setting a precedent for similar rulings across the country. (Read more about the decision here or watch Bremby break it down here).

This was no easy feat. Since the permits were first denied in October 2007, there has been relentless pressure from the coal lobby and state legislature to not only overturn the ruling but restrict Bremby's authority to oversee future plants. Bremby and his extremely supportive boss Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a current front-runner for the U.S. Secretary of Health position, have not backed down. Both recognize the major environmental repercussions of the proposed plants, which would belch out about 11 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and would be the largest new source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Because climate change doesn't honor state boundaries, what happens in the middle of the country will impact the edges and beyond.

Secretary Bremby has been on our eco-hero list for quite some time. Last week he released guidelines for the permitting of new electricity plants, serving as a bridge between his last ruling and any future legislation. This prompted us to reach out for more insight into Bremby's landmark decision, highly charged in a state that gets three-fourths of its energy from coal.

Simran Sethi: Secretary Bremby, you made history with your ruling against the coal plant permits for Holcomb, KS.

Roderick Bremby: Some days it doesn't feel that way.

SS: This has got to be challenging. You clearly have a long-term commitment to health and the environment--from your research at KU to your work in local government in Lawrence. What's informed your commitment to healthy community development?

RB: I've never sought political office or have been overly partisan while working in a council-manager or commission-manager form of government. We were taught in graduate school that there was no Democratic or Republican way to take out the trash, and I learned to be as efficient and effective in the provision of public service. In my work in local government, youth development was an overlooked local service issue. It caused me to take a look at prevention issues. I began to see how local government wasn't giving enough attention to prevention or early intervention.

SS: You oversee the regulation of health and environmental entities ranging from hospitals to feedlots and from laboratories to landfills. The work that's gotten you the most attention was your October 2007 decision to deny permits for two new 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants proposed by Sunflower Electric, on the grounds that the 11 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the plants would negatively affect health. That decision was supported by the April 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which established carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

You said, "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."

RB: I'm not a scientist by training, but we have at our fingertips results from the nation's best scientists and the international community. Scientists are by nature skeptical, yet they have stated our impacts on climate change are unequivocal. We have to be responsive to that. I felt that a permit that would stand for 40-50 years should not be taken lightly. I couldn't ignore the emerging information concerning climate change.

SS: At that time, you also said, "Denying the Sunflower air quality permit, combined with creating sound policy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions can facilitate the development of clean and renewable energy to protect the health and environment of Kansans." What kind of economic development would be available to Kansas if it had policies that were friendly to renewable energy?

RB: We're on the cusp of an emerging economy, an economy built around low-carbon consumption. China is often cited for its large carbon footprint, but it's probably second only to Germany in its current renewable energy investments. We have the opportunity to focus strategically in terms of our competitiveness.

SS: I'm guessing you anticipated strong opposition from Sunflower Electric, but did you expect the same from state legislators? The GOP majority House and Senate supported the plants as did the Kansas AFL-CIO--but the regional United Steelworkers Union opposed it. The legislature tried to strip your power to deny the permits and allow Sunflower to forge ahead, but Governor Sebelius vetoed their attempts three times.

RB: I didn't expect the intensity of opposition, but it doesn't surprise me. From the beginning, there were a lot of comments made about correcting the "wrong decision" and the "boundaries" that I had "overstepped." But there is often a bit of a contradiction. The opposition has artfully argued that we should all follow the rule of law, yet we have procedures for disagreement resulting with the final determination made by the Courts. In this instance, there continues to be an attempt to circumvent the rule of law and provide a legislative "fix." Also most of the opposition overlooks the federal law that informed the state decision. The legislature has the prerogative to make laws, we in our regulatory role will try to enforce them. As federal law emerges, we try to do the same. We believe we are on the right side of this argument.

SS: Now Sunflower's pursuing legal action in federal and state courts and is, again, appealing to the legislature. In an interview with the Washington Post, Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller said your ruling "has no basis in law or regulation." What kind of pressure has this put on you to reverse or amend your decision?

RB: I have felt no pressure. In all of Sunflower's arguments against the decision, there hasn't been any use of the same facts [that I used]. If they had referenced the Massachusetts V. EPA Supreme Court ruling or the IPCC reports, perhaps that would give us some pause to listen. In most cases, they haven't mentioned any of the legal or scientific bases for my decision.

SS: Last week you issued guidelines stating Kansas' policy on the treatment of carbon dioxide emissions in permitting new power plants that are supplying base load energy, the amount of power required to meet the minimum demands of its customers. This is meant to be the guiding document from April 2007 (when the Supreme Court ruled on Massachusetts v. EPA) until future legislation is enacted at the federal level. Why did you do this? And why now?

RB: We created the guidance document in response to expressions of regulatory uncertainty. While we have continued to reassure the business community that Kansas is open for business, recently the Chamber of Commerce, agricultural interests, and an attorney representing Sunflower continued to testify about uncertainty and queried the regulatory basis of the 2007 ruling. There have also been far-flung statements about whether we intended to regulate human expiration and soft drink dispensers because both release carbon dioxide. We wanted to be crystal clear that we are being specific and tailored in our approach to CO2 reviews. We are looking at CO2 emissions generated by power plants because federal regulation is on the way. Our state greenhouse gas inventory shows that electricity produces about 34% of our emissions. This is the place where most states have begun to focus their emissions reductions.

SS: You focused on electricity generation because it's the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Kansas, but would you target other carbon-intensive sectors like transportation or agriculture in the future?

RB: No, not without federal direction.

SS: Roughly 2/3 of Kansas' energy comes from coal plants that are already emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, not to mention mercury and other toxins. What measures are you taking to protect us from these pollutants?

RB: Absolutely. We are still working with adherence to the existing Clean Air Act, and have approached all companies operating large facilities to enter into an agreement to reduce their emissions voluntarily. Our largest energy supplier entered into agreement with us and is engaging in voluntary reductions. And it is absolutely not the case that older facilities operate with impunity. We continue to seek voluntary reduction agreements with the other companies as well.

SS: Opponents argue that you have no legal or regulatory framework for these kinds of decisions. Can you explain what further authority is required or are you the sole arbiter of this decision?

RB: I, in consort with others, follow the law as we understand it. Because this decision is subject to legal dispute, the final arbiter will be the courts.

SS: In light of all these challenges, would you do anything differently?

RB: I don't think so. I think that following the decision we could have made more of the material that informed our decision available to the public--the Supreme Court decision, the IPCC report. I am surprised at times to learn that people think I acted alone, but the Kansas Attorney General provided an opinion that affirmed our belief that my actions were within the law. I didn't just make this decision on a whim.

SS: Any final thoughts?

RB: So much has been written about the jobs the coal plants would create but little has been said about the infrastructure costs and the burden to the community prior to the receipt of local tax revenues from the proposed facility. Nevada took a coal plant offline because of costs and is looking at renewable energy and efficiency as alternatives. The argument in Western Kansas was the need for baseload power, but there's been no discussion of the impacts on the aquifer or opportunity to garner energy from cleaner baseload energy sources. There are a lot of environmental impacts we have not discussed, including increased health risks like asthma. And we haven't really looked at the resources that would leave the state as a result of the plants. Lastly, in the context of the proposed newer plant being cleaner than the older plants, there has be a deliberate omission of the amount of CO2 this plant will release annually. This plant will emit more than all but one other facility.

We view Secretary Bremby's final words as a challenge. Although some Kansas legislators have insisted that Sunflower's proposed plants will be "clean," we know that clean coal is an illusion. Stay tuned for our next post, as we delve into the myriad hazards of one of our nation's most dirty industries.

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