A WEALTH of Education & Advocacy
by Veronica Coons with Natalie Fullerton and Mary Fund
Climate change and mitigating its risk is a primary concern for many state environmental organizations in Kansas. Last November a panel of environmental advocates came together at KRC’s annual Farm and Food Conference to talk about what’s in store for Kansas in the near future. The advocates are a part of a Kansas partnership called WEALTH, an acronym for Water, Energy, Air, Land, Transportation, and Health, that came together in 2016. The partnership was launched by the Climate and Energy Project (CEP) to improve the networking of stakeholders addressing climate risk and health equity in Kansas.
Last year the group helped CEP launch the Kansas Climate + Health Declaration to catalyze grassroots climate action. The Declaration aims to increase awareness of the impacts of climate change on public health, increase civic engagement on climate action in Kansas, advance policies that build community resilience and safeguard the future of our state. Individuals and organizations across Kansas are encouraged to sign the declaration to strengthen its support.
Last November, WEALTH partners primed Kansans who attended KRC’s Farm & Food conference on the political landscape for 2020, an election year, in terms of WEALTH priorities at the state level and issues folks can take action on. In February, 2020 WEALTH Partners organized WEALTH Day at the capital with attracted over 400 Kansans to learn and education policy makers.
Dawn Buehler, Friends of the KAW (FOK) Executive Director, advocates for Kansas river systems. Water quality and water quantity both impact health and every person. According to Buehler, healthy Kansas rivers equal a healthy Kansas. FOK’s top three priorities are 1) fully fund the State of Kansas Water Plan; 2) rethink the management of Missouri River System Reservoirs, and 3) support creation of a state climate plan.
The goal and recommendation from the State has been for $8 million annually to fund the State Water Plan, but this has not happened for the past 18 years. The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Water Resource Management in 2016 called for $56 million/annually—over a number of years–in order to carry out needed projects and actions. The positive news is that legislators have increased funding in the past couple of years.
The Kansas River System and the greater Missouri River System experienced major flooding in the spring and summer of 2019. Not only were these areas inundated with runoff from storms in northern states from “bomb cyclones,” excessive rainfall occurred along the rivers. Reservoirs throughout the Kansas River Basin were filled to capacity earlier in the year. After initial drops, some have come back up prompting concern that levels could be too high by the beginning of 2020, which doesn’t bode well for the coming year.
“Kansas needs a climate plan to prepare for these things,” Buehler said. Climate change is impacting the Kansas river system. Water and drought extremes are becoming more common statewide. Part of a climate plan should include identifying how people can get the information they need to plan and protect themselves. The coming year could bring more flooding issues, but it could just as likely be a drought year. A climate plan should encompass both eventualities, Buehler said.
Jessica Lucas, the government affairs representative for the Clean Energy Business Council (CEBC) shared that a broader stakeholder process is needed that examines energy as a whole and includes greater adoption of energy efficiency tools.
In 2018, the CEBC met with then candidate Laura Kelly about the need for a Kansas Energy Office that resides as a standalone regulatory agency, not simply within the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC). While its creation is at a standstill, Gov. Kelly’s announcement a few weeks earlier that the state will pursue a comprehensive energy plan beginning in 2020, is encouraging. But, each step in the right direction is hard fought. The Kansas Energy Efficiency Investment Act was passed by the state legislature, but the KCC didn’t feel it was cost effective after review, Lucas said.
The adoption of new technologies must be affordable and reliable. That’s not to say utility companies shouldn’t be able to make a profit, Lucas said. “We need to engage stakeholders in a comprehensive effort that provides us with a clear vision, guiding principles, realistic objectives and actionable strategies that can actually inform our energy future,” she said.
Ensuring everyone is at the table to bring their thoughts and perspectives is important, because utility companies and the KCC have dominated the conversation with what works in the traditional model. A more holistic approach is what is called for in the fight for climate resiliency and a better energy future.
Zack Pistora is the Legislative Director for the Sierra Club of Kansas, a
KRC board member, and vice-president of the Kansas Natural Resource Council. Sierra Club may be best known for their fight against coal-fired power plants and concrete factories.
Pistora shared that the state could reduce carbon emissions by allowing securitization of utility assets which would allow coal fired infrastructure to make way for investment in clean energy options. While Kansas leads the nation in production of wind energy, 39% of its own energy is still produced by coal fired power plants powered by Wyoming coal and operating on a part time basis, costing Kansans $267 million more than the cost of buying power on the Southwest Power Pool open market. “We’re going to work cooperatively with our utilities to allow that refinancing so we can transition those capital assets from coal, which is becoming an increasingly expensive and outdated infrastructure, into the next phase of clean energy,” Pistora said. “Kansas has wind, sun and some homegrown advanced fuels.”
Pistora highlighted the reduction of six common pollutants identified by the Clean Air Act of 1970 which included ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulates. Chlorofluorocarbons were causing a widening hole in the ozone layer of our atmosphere. The world came together to create the Montreal protocol to phase out CFC producing items, and since then, our ozone layer has been replenishing, and is close to being fully repaired. And, from 1972 to 2015, the presence of those identified pollutants has dropped by an average of 70% in the United States, he said.
In the face of the current environmental challenges, it’s important to remember that working together and taking action can have promising results.
Paul Johnson, a policy analyst with the KRC focusing on local foods, water, environment, pesticides and noxious weed law. Johnson called on the group to consider what transformations in federal farm policy would drive a better food and agriculture future in Kansas.
The federal farm bill currently drives agriculture in Kansas. In 2018, $1.12 billion was allocated to farmers in Kansas, mostly for commodity and crop insurance payments. Only $55 million was earmarked for disaster assistance and $90 million for conservation. On top of that, 88 % went to the top 20% of producers who receive farm subsidies, leaving the lower 80% to divide up just 12% of the remainder.
By transitioning the number of acres devoted to commodities over to fruits and vegetables by less than one percent, Kansas farmers could up production of the state’s primary fruit and vegetable supply from 5% to 100%, Johnson said.
Johnson called for putting caps on commodity and crop insurance payments, as well as a five-year transition from the bulk of the payouts from the Farm Bill for commodities and crop insurance payments to conservation related payments. This would provide farmers with a base of income from which they could diversify operations and try new options, and provide ecosystem benefits for all.
Johnson also called for efforts to encourage younger farmers. “In the next 20 years, much farmland will turn over, something we need to keep in mind when envisioning a regional system of small and niche farms for the future, “he said. “The same way we need a climate change plan in this state, we also need a state local food plan.”
Tammy Alexander with the Metropolitan Energy Center’s Central Kansas Clean Cities Program, is working to offset petroleum use in transportation. Alexander wants the state to push through some mandates similar to what Minnesota has for minimum requirements of biofuels in both the
gas and diesel supply so that Kansans can start eliminating these emissions, before they have to transition all of these vehicles to new technology. “These fuels can be run in the vehicles we have on the road today,” she said. “Any vehicle can run on a 10 percent blend, and vehicles built as early as 2001 on can operate on a 15 percent blend, Alexander added.
In addition, work is underway to change the laws in regards to electric vehicle charging. Currently, only utility companies can charge for the amount of energy sold to consumers. She said, “We would like to see that restructured so that non-utilities can charge for energy used, limited to charging electric vehicles.” Charging stations have gotten around restrictions by charging for the amount of time a vehicle is hooked up to a charging stations. The State of Kansas received $15 million from the VW emissions settlement, of which $2.3 million has been earmarked for electric charging station upgrades.
Alexander’s group has been working with partners to lay out a plan targeting main corridors throughout the state where charging stations will be established to make traveling through
the state in electric passenger vehicles possible. These corridors will include both interstates and well-traveled state highways, she said. Kansas needs to be prepared with infrastructure so it doesn’t become an island where nobody can drive through with their electric vehicles.
Sheldon Weiss is a policy adviser with the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas. The statewide coalition focuses on expanding KanCare, the state’s Medicare program. He is hopeful with a new administration in office, Kansas will finally become part of Medicare expansion and will finally see its federal tax dollars coming back to the state instead of funding other states’ medical systems. That would translate to $700 million in new federal funding and an increase of 13,000 new jobs related to the healthcare and supporting sectors of the economy.
“This is hugely important for rural communities,” he said. “More than 80 percent of our rural hospitals operate at a loss and are largely subsidized by local taxpayers.” At this point, the federal government will pay 90 percent of the cost of expansion provided the state puts in a 10 % match. “This will be about a $40 to $50 million cost for the state to bring in $700 million in federal money,” Weiss said.
Participants at the conference were urged to keep active on the issues and visit with WEALTH partners to find out more about how to get engaged.