Winds of Change

Coal, Kansas Politics, and The New Activism

It's another overflow Monday evening at the Free State Brewery, and they're wobbling like bowling pins out on the patio. In a ritual instigated in large part by bargain-priced beer, townies of all stripes gather in number on this night to jostle, slosh on, and holler at each other. The din of the place is a physical presence and the tap handles move like metronomes. Hippies hang with lawyers and students debate professors, boundaries blurred by conviviality and a torrent of Copperhead Ale.

Tucked around a table, somewhere in the hubbub, an activist group called Free State Mondays holds its weekly meeting.

Tagged by the mainstream media as the "New Activists," the members of the Mondays group are a clean-cut, educated bunch: informed, composed and well-spoken. Most are in their 20s, and all are actively trying to change in the world-primarily via climate and energy issues, and mostly here at the grass-roots level.


Free State Mondays in one of their meetings.

The Revolution Will Be Downloaded

They are a breed evolved from the long-haired, placard-waving, establishment-frightening revolutionaries of the '60s and '70s. The New Activists are as effective with a Blackberry as Abbie Hoffman with a bullhorn. They are equally at ease in the boardroom as in the community center. And, thanks to the internet, likely much better informed.

The New Activists employ social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter to mobilize people and propagate campaigns-it's little wonder they reap far more mainstream media coverage than their predecessors.

But the New Activists are sometimes criticized by pundits and even by some of their own kind-by those who believe that commitment to a cause means standing up in public to be counted. They say that the New Activists' non-confrontational tactics smack of laziness and apathy, of a video-game approach to life-and-death issues.

The members of the Mondays group are puzzled by such criticism.

"You don't see the same level of public demonstration, but there's a lot more effective organizing. We need legislators in there who understand the issues," said group member Brian Sifton, who's also on the city's Sustainability Advisory Board.

Audio clips

New Activists

"We'll get to demonstrating when we need to," continued Juliana Tran, a KU student and coordinator for KU Environs, "but we'll try everything else first."

Paul Hohnen, a former political director for Greenpeace, proposed in May that the brave new world requires a new kind of activist: "Chaining yourself to a tree belongs in the awareness-building phase, but we've entered the solutions-building phase where this kind of treehugging might be counterproductive."

For many New Activists, provoking a better future relies less on organizing a good sit-in than in finding a sympathetic investment banker. For James Roberts, a Mondays regular, the low-key profile of the New Activism gives him the edge: "I'm not your cliche activist-that's my advantage. I look like a Republican."

Tipping point

Roberts and Eileen Horn are poster children for the New Activism (indeed, they are on the cover of this week's issue). Both work long hours on short pay for locally based, non-profit groups.

Horn, 28, is the Director of Community Outreach for the Climate and Energy Project (CEP), an offshoot of the venerable Land Institute in Salina. Roberts, 23, is the Director of Statewide Coordinating for the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy (GPACE). They are the type of people once called All-American: intelligent and focused, healthy and attractive, their charisma and confidence stoked by passion.

Horn concedes that the New Activism, while by no means apathetic, might be somewhat distracted. "Our attention has been captured by genius marketers. We're told that our society is one of consumerism," she says. "When all your energy is caught up in trying to compete in that world, it's difficult to be engaged with social causes. It's a designed distraction."

Horn thinks leadership is the missing link: "I believe there's some truth that my generation is somewhat apathetic. I don't think we're doing enough. Honestly, many of us are just waiting for a leader to ask something of us."

Roberts wonders where the tipping point lies for the New Activism. "Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King didn't add anyone to their Facebook page," he interjected at a recent Mondays discussion. "What will it take to get us into the streets?"

For these two, fighting to shift our state's energy consumption to renewable sources could be just such a tipping point. Wind and solar power offer achievable solutions for the future, and yet coal is at the forefront of recent proposals for new sources of energy production in Kansas. Despite two vetos by Governor Kathleen Sebelius, lobbyists and lawyers continue to push for building new coal plants in the state.

As the third windiest state in the nation, Kansas produces just one percent of its energy from wind; 89% (net) comes from burning coal. Clearly, coal isn't going away anytime soon. Roberts says GPACE's stance on the future of coal in energy production "is that it's part of the mix. Let's use it responsibly, let's maximize its efficiency, and let's not invest in any more of it-yet-because as of now, it's the biggest risk to our health, our economy, and our environment."

Old King Coal

Every hour or so, a coal train trundles through North Lawrence.

"At least 15 trains per day, every day of the year," says Jay Sayre, who worked as an auditor for the Santa Fe railroad for 38 years. Most of the trains start out in the vast coalfields of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and most pass through town on their way to other locales. But "every two or three days, they roll between 120 and 140 cars into the Lawrence Energy Center just northwest of town," says Sayre.

Each car, fully loaded, holds nearly 143 tons of coal-enough to power some 300 laptops for a year.

On the whole, Kansas uses 19 million tons of coal per year-one thousand coal trains' worth. The U.S. consumes about a billion tons of coal each year, one-sixth of the annual global consumption.

For the New Activists this is a potential lightning rod to affect real change right here in Lawrence. "There's no real competitor in the energy market in this state," Roberts says. "If (most) of our energy comes from coal, not only don't the coal companies have any incentive to clean up carbon and mercury emissions, they have no incentive to maximize efficiency in coal plants. There's information out there that coal plants can produce energy with 40% more efficiency. That's a number I see as a real goal."

State Representative Tom Sloan, a Republican in the 45th District and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy's Electricity Advisory Committee, wrote in an email interview: "Burning coal, natural gas, and oil results in carbon and other emissions that contribute to global warming and health problems. Yet coal and oil also provide the lowest cost energy for the U.S. and the world. Energy supplies, whether to generate electricity or fuel motor vehicles, must be both reliable and affordable." He continued: "Clean coal technologies are expensive to install and operate. Before such technologies are installed, public utility commissions, elected officials, and the public must be willing to approve and pay the higher prices for electricity." (Note: the full email is reprinted in the comments section below)

Clearly pursuing renewable energy sources in Kansas will require more than a reliance on market forces and existing energy producers. The New Activists likely have found a calling.


Discussion at the Free State Mondays group.

Johannes Feddema, Professor of Geography at the University of Kansas, is an authority on climate and energy. In a recent Weather Underground blog he wrote:

"It is time to see and seize the opportunity before us rather than clinging to outdated energy technologies. I believe we can do better, especially if we listen to the ideas, and act on the hopes, enthusiasm and aspirations of our younger generation."

"Fight the Power" was the chorus of street activists in the '60s and '70s; "Use the Power" is the song the New Activists are singing now. With technological marvels and sophisticated skills at their disposal, with calls for change ringing throughout the land, and with King Coal attempting to expand his kingdom on the prairie, perhaps Kansas' New Activists need only realize that they are the leaders they are looking for. »


tribalzendancer 9 years, 6 months ago

Great article. I think this new activism has definitely learned from the strategies that have failed in the past. Unfortunately, the ability to write a good press release and craft media messages that draw people to ones cause rather than alienate is still in short supply among many activist circles. I talk about it in a blog here: (It's Time Anti-War Activists Go Back to School)Speaking of activist information and theory, people who dig this kind of stuff should check out this site: - it's a portal to the best activist-issue videos online. A great resource for general knowledge, research, and awareness-spreading. Cheers!

James_Roberts 9 years, 6 months ago

Rep. Sloan's Response:3) whether the renewable energy incentives that were included in the bills should be considered milestones in developing a responsible, balanced energy portfolio for Kansas.GPACE Response: It is interesting that Rep. Sloan earlier claims that he has "introduced and passed more legislation related to renewable energy incentives than any other Kansas legislator", then (just above) states that he added amendments that he "had not previously been able to pass as 'stand-alone bills." I do not propose to question how hard Rep. Sloan has worked for renewable energy in Kansas, but one must wonder how effectively he has done so given the fact that Kansas has NO state policies encouraging renewables - no net metering, no RES or RPS, no green pricing, etc. (see for an animated view of where Kansas stands on renewable energy policies compared to other states). Colorado has secured over 2,000 jobs for wind turbine manufacturing, Arkansas just got a 1000-job Clipper plant, Iowa has hundreds of wind-related manufacturing jobs, there are 480 permanent wind-related jobs just in Norton County,Texas, and that county last year reduced taxes due to increased revenues from wind producers. Rep. Sloan may be introducing a lot of amendments and getting himself appointed to a lot of committees, but it hasn't resulted in any substantive renewable energy progress for the rest of us in Kansas. Additionally, the carbon tax proposed by the legislation was $3/ton. The anticipated MINIMUM cost of carbon under federal carbon regulations or trading is $30/ton (that is the current price paid for CO2 used in enhanced oil recovery operations). The proposed tax paid only lip service to actual carbon reduction while failing to recognize that cleaning up after coal will actually mean paying more to burn it.

James_Roberts 9 years, 6 months ago

Rep. Sloan's Response:There were at least three issues involved in this debate:1) whether the Dept. of Health & Environment could legally deny the air permit due to the release of carbon dioxide when neither the State nor federal government has established CO2 emission standards;GPACE Response Under our Constitution, it is not given to the legislative branch to rule upon or interpret existing laws that responsibility belongs to the judicial branch of our government. So why did the legislature intervene, overstepping it's authority under the separation of powers, and wasting valuable time and taxpayer dollars, to benefit a single company?

James_Roberts 9 years, 6 months ago

Rep. Sloan's Response:2) whether the construction of the most environmentally responsible coal-fired plant in the nation one that would capture 45% of the carbon going through the flu gas stream should be authorized; andGPACE Response: This one is particularly interesting, since there is currently no commercially viable technology for carbon capture from pulverized coal plants like those in Kansas (including the proposed Holcomb Station Expansion). The experimental algae reactor process that Rep. Sloan and Sunflower claims would "capture 45% of the carbon" was NOT part of Sunflower's permit request; Sunflower would not have been obligated in any way to make any such component functional, ever. The algae-reactor discussed by Sunflower has never been successfully tested at anything approaching utility scale. Recent experiments to bring this process up to utility scale - in fact what sponsors of the bill touted as the model for Sunflower's expansion - were abandoned by the Department of Energy and its partners, citing expense and infeasible technologically. Additionally, the proposed algae reactor would require a body of water at least FIVE TIMES the size of Kanopolis Lake. Given the required size of an algae reactor at Holcomb, the materials and energy needed to build and maintain it over a couple of decades would likely cost two to three times of the cost of the coal plants themselves. No member of the legislature offered any proposal for where this money (and water) would come from. Claims that a "bioenergy center" would reduce carbon emissions from the plants by 45% are completely unsubstantiated.

James_Roberts 9 years, 6 months ago

Rep. Sloan's Response: Burning coal, natural gas, and oil results in carbon and other emissions that contribute to global warming and health problems. Yet coal and oil also provide the lowest cost energy for the U.S. and the world. Energy supplies, whether to generate electricity or fuel motor vehicles, must be both reliable and affordable. Developing the public policies that provide incentives for alternative fuels must have public acceptance, be cost effective, and result in reliable energy supplies.GPACE Response: The costs of coal as a fuel, coal plant construction, water needed to make energy from coal, transporting the coal, and carbon emissions are all rising sharply. As coal-related costs increase, wind is likely to become a less expensive energy source. Because the sun's energy is greatest at exactly the times of greatest peak energy demand (summer days), solar energy is an ideal, cost-effective way for utilities to "shave" their peak demand and avoid their most expensive power purchases. Investing in renewable energy as a supplement to our fossil-fuel dominated energy market is a practical move on the part of Kansas. The cost of coal is rising. Its subsidies (whether public or private) look increasingly uncertain. And no proven technology exists that can protect Kansans from its health risks and demand for water. Ignoring those realities, while sinking $3.6 billion into new coal investment - is like putting a down payment on a burning house.

James_Roberts 9 years, 6 months ago

In the spirit of open, honest, and well-informed public debate over energy policy in Kansas, the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy would like to offer the following responses to Rep. Sloan's statements.Rep. Sloan's Response: My support was not for coal, my support was for renewable energy incentives that had been dismissed, but which are of vital necessity to our energy future. GPACE Response: None of the "energy bills" passed by the legislature during the 2008 session (and vetoed by the Governor) contained any binding or significant renewable energy incentives. These bills sought to lock Kansas into a one-time, massive investment in a single power source, coal, while failing to provide the groundwork needed to bring a renewable energy economy to Kansas. The only clear objectives of House substitute for SB327 and House substitute for SB148 were: (1) force the state to permit 1400 MW of additional coal-fired capacity for Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, and (2) punish the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for exerting administrative authority before the courts get a chance to assess the valid legal grounds of that authority. The wind energy provisions and net-metering provisions of both bills would have acted at as a deterrent to the development and use of renewable sources of energy. The carbon measures were substantively meaningless and would not have reduced carbon dioxide emissions in any significant or accountable way. Kansas is already dependent upon coal for 75% of its energy, at a time when the future of coal is increasingly uncertain. In any other arena, if one entity owned 75% of a market, it wouldn't just be considered a monopoly, it would be seen as a significant risk. These bills would have deepened Kansas' dependency on coal while all but squelching the chance for a diverse energy market.

James_Roberts 9 years, 6 months ago

Rep. Sloan's Response: Clean coal technologies are available today and additional research will provide more options in the near future. The Eastman Chemical Company gasifies coal and sells the captured CO2; the Tampa Electric Company has an electric generation unit that uses gasified coal as its fuel source; and Sunflower proposed to capture 45% of the flu gas carbon by using algae to "eat" the carbon. * Again - see previous comments (and Salina Journal articles by Duane Schrag) re: the proposed algae reactor Carbon dioxide is used in oil fields to increase yields by "pushing" the oil toward production wells; it also is used in the coal fields to "release" methane gas from the coal for collection and use for home heating. Additional research continues on whether CO2 can be permanently sequestered and pipelines to carry the captured CO2 must be constructed to move it to appropriate geological formations.GPACE Response: It just simply isn't true that clean coal technologies are available today they are neither available nor affordable for pulverized coal energy production which is the only kind of coal-fired electricity production in Kansas. Coal gasification technology is not economically viable anywhere in the U.S. In fact, the Bush Department of Energy recently abandoned a huge and highly publicized investment in so-called "clean coal" technology in Illinois (the FutureGen projecbecause it was deemed too expensive and technologically unattainable at this time. The purported existence of "clean coal" is a marketing myth pushed by the coal industry to deceive voters and consumers. Such technology is decades in the future, if possible at all. In the meantime, there is no such thing as clean coal and it has no bearing on immediate investments in energy infrastructure, global warming, or other fuel sources. Rep. Sloan should know better. The technology Rep. Sloan points to also currently requires triple the water use of a pulverized coal plant without carbon capture. And "mitigation" according the proposed legislation, specifically included unproven technologies. So, the measure pushed by members of the Kansas legislature was essentially a tax credit for a utility company to roll the dice on non-existent and ineffective CO2 capture technologies that, if deployed, would consume enormous amounts of fresh water and would not have been required to reduce CO2 emission levels at all. That's right - the legislation would have actually given utilities a tax credit simply for demonstrating interest in experimental technologies - no results required!

James_Roberts 9 years, 6 months ago

Rep. Sloan's Response: My work in organizing the five Kansas Electric Transmission Summits was focused on removing barriers to the construction of high voltage electric transmission lines to move wind power from rural areas to the customer load centers in Kansas and other states. Wind developers cannot construct the necessary wind farms to serve regional needs without having access to transmission lines, (lines that they cannot afford to construct on their own).GPACE Response: Transmission needed for wind energy does not depend upon the construction of the Sunflower Expansion at Holcomb. Two separate companies are right now competing to build high-capacity transmission lines in west and southwest Kansas without the Holcomb Plant Expansion. Both Oklahoma and Texas are aggressively planning or building transmission infrastructure linking remote, rural, high-wind areas with populous load centers - again, unassociated with any new coal plant construction.

elscorcho 9 years, 6 months ago

From lawrence to Butte, Montana there's tons of wind power to harvest. I remember hearing about wind power from the sixth grade to the 12th grade and that was in the early 90's. If it works so well do it, if not scrap it.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.