How Cheap Wind Energy Threatens To Upend The Kansas Governor’s Race And Upset The Koch Brothers

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback once supported wind energy, but that was before petrochemical billionaires and Kansas natives Charles and David Koch became his largest campaign donors. Now, Brownback and the Kochs find themselves enmeshed in a highly competitive governor’s race, one that has become a referendum on the much-heralded notion that scaling back government and slashing taxes for the wealthy will lead to economic growth.

A key aspect of this debate hinges on the role of renewable energy in the state and the future of the Kansas’ Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a law requiring a certain portion of a state’s energy mix come from renewable sources. The Koch brothers have devoted a significant amount of time and money into repealing the standard and as of late, Brownback has wavered in his support. His Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, has taken a stand, saying he would “veto a bill that repeals our RPS” during the first gubernatorial debate.

“Kansas has some of the greatest potential for wind energy in the United States, but the future of wind in Kansas depends upon the continuation of the RPS,” Davis said in an email. “If Kansas were to repeal the RPS, it sends a very strong message to the wind industry that we are not open for business, and you will see people back away from Kansas in a big way.”

Davis said the RPS repeal is being championed by a very narrow group of far right special interests with heavy investments in the oil industry. He said this is despite the fact that the policy remains incredibly popular among everyday Kansans and public and private sector leaders who understand the importance of diversifying the state’s energy portfolio. In fact, Kansas’ RPS — which requires investor-owned utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 — is almost entirely fulfilled several years ahead of schedule.

“Frankly, the RPS has become controversial because those who want to repeal the RPS have poured millions into Sam Brownback’s re-election campaign, which has caused him to suddenly change his position,” said Davis.

Named after the Kansa Native American tribe, which meant “south wind people,” wind has played a metaphorical role throughout Kansas’ history, with the tornado in the Wizard of Oz cementing this tumultuous imagery into American folklore. The wind blows through Kansas powerfully enough to meet the state’s electricity needs more than 90 times over. However, neighboring Iowa — with a lesser wind resource — is currently far outpacing Kansas in wind power capacity.

Wind advocates in Kansas say their competitive disadvantage comes from political attacks on policies that would boost clean energy development. For Kansas is not only home to plentiful wind resources, it is also home to the ultraconservative Kochs, whose affiliated groups have spearheaded many of the attacks on clean energy across the country.
“We’ve had this policy on the books for five years and it’s been extremely successful,” said Kimberly Gencur Svaty, owner of Gencur Svaty Public Affairs and board member at the Kansas-based Climate + Energy Project. “Kansas is desperately trying to get back on the right economic track and we have lots of large companies like Walmart, Kroger, and Google that want to invest in a state that shows commitment to renewable energy.”

Svaty said that when the legislature toys with the state’s RPS it undermines investor confidence. “This is a free policy that doesn’t cost the state any money,” she said. “We can show that it has minimal impact on customer electricity rates. Oftentimes, the state spends far more to attract business. This has no price tag.”

A Kansas Corporation Commission analysis earlier this year showed that the RPS had a negligible impact on consumer prices — about one-fifth of one cent of the average 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour electricity cost — and required less than two percent of the revenue requirement of the utilities while supplying more than 10 percent of the generation capacity in the state.

To date, attempts to repeal clean energy initiatives in states across the country have largely met with failure, but the deep pockets backing these anti-clean energy efforts, like the American Legislative Executive Council and Americans For Prosperity, will not be diminished anytime soon. Many of these groups receive financial support from the Kochs and in their home state, they’ve used their clout to further the interests of an empire built on a petrochemical fortune.

Dave Kerr, former five-term Kansas state senator and president of the Kansas Senate, said that the Koch brothers and their affiliated organizations think they have a “very friendly oil state” in Kansas, a good place to start their repeal efforts and then use the momentum to expand the fight nationally.

Kerr said that with Kansas right in the heart of the “wind belt,” the RPS has done what was expected of it, even as Congress’ failure to renew the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for clean energy caused a “big layoff that people still remember” in 2013. He pointed to Iowa as a model for leadership in the wind industry — leadership that has been lacking from Kansas’ current governor.
“Brownback has generally been favorable on wind,” Kerr said. “But lately he’s been showing signs of giving in to oil and gas interests. Modifying the RPS would just be tossing a bone to the oil industry. There was a time when I thought Brownback would veto a repeal of the RPS. Now we know that’s not true.”

Late this summer, Brownback expressed support for gradually phasing out the state’s RPS during an impromptu meeting with reporters. His office tried to walk the comment back later, saying he actually meant to refer to the PTC, which expired last year.

There was a push to repeal Kansas’ clean energy standard in the last legislative session and Koch Industries lobbied hard for the measure. In the end, the bill passed the Senate but not the House. Dr. Michael Smith, associate professor of political science at Emporia State University in Kansas, said that “some ‘strong arm’ tactics were used to get it passed in the Senate.”
The ultimate failure of the latest repeal effort may have damaged the governor’s standing with his largest donors. Smith said an elected official recently told him that Koch Industries is not supporting Brownback’s re-election campaign because the RPS repeal effort was unsuccessful. This would follow the pattern of the Kochs lashing out at even very conservative state legislators who didn’t support the repeal. Over the summer, Republican State Representative Scott Schwab said he lost backing from Koch-fronted groups due to his opposition to the proposed weakening of the renewable energy standard.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, left, and his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis acknowledge supporters after a debate at the Kansas State Fair in September in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, left, and his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis acknowledge supporters after a debate at the Kansas State Fair in September in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Beyond his wavering on clean energy policies, Brownback’s troubling fiscal policies are a key reason he’s even involved in a close race in reliably red Kansas. By most accounts, he has imperiled the state’s budget and caused major educational funding strife through his extreme and experimental income tax cuts. Brownback and his legislative supporters passed laws wiping out the top income tax rate, cutting the middle rate, and slightly reducing the bottom tier. This approach has caused many economic disadvantages for the state, including credit downgrades, deficit spending, and cuts in highways and education.

In April and May, the state planned to collect $651 million from personal income tax — instead, it received only $369 million. The Kansas Supreme Court actually ordered lawmakers to restore funding to poor school districts, saying that the spending levels they enacted were so low, they were actually unconstitutional.

Brownback’s tax plan also absolved approximately 200,000 small business owners of their state income tax responsibility; around 20 of these so-called small businesses were Koch Industries LLCs. “Without question they’re the biggest beneficiaries of the tax cuts,” University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis told Mother Jones.

It seems the tax cuts may not have been enough, however. “The key way that energy politics may be entering Kansas this fall is that the Kochs have proved reluctant to back Sam Brownback,” Loomis told ThinkProgress. “He failed to repeal that state’s RPS and the Kochs desperately wanted that. He couldn’t deliver.”

Loomis said that while education, taxation, and revenues are dominating the campaign season, polling data shows that Kansans do support wind energy by a large margin. “Wind relates well to Kansas’ rural communities, and it may make them a little more reluctant to side with Brownback and far-right Republicans, to say nothing of the Kochs,” he said.

91 percent of Kansas voters are strongly supportive of using renewable energy, with 88 percent responding that they believe boosting renewable energy will lead to new investments in Kansas and help grow the state’s economy, according to a poll conducted by North Star Opinion Research in early 2014. It also found that 73 percent of Republicans support the 2009 RPS.

Kansans who don’t want four more years of Brownback’s extremely conservative policies, and who see merit in the RPS, are rallying behind Davis. While energy issues have not been a focus of Davis’ campaign, as Democratic minority leader in the state House, he voted against both bills this session aimed at repealing or weakening the state’s RPS. He also voted against expanding coal-fired power plants. He told ThinkProgress that he supports an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that includes maintaining renewable energy standards that grow our economy, continuing support for approval of the Keystone pipeline, and encouraging innovative energy production in agriculture.

“We need an energy policy that focuses on Kansas fuels and Kansas jobs, supports all of our energy resources, and keeps utility rates down,” Davis said.

According to the Davis campaign, Republicans for Kansas Values, a group representing Republicans who support Davis’ candidacy, has over 500 current and former elected Republican leaders’ endorsements. Brownback did not respond to interview requests for this article. Recent polls show them in a very close race as the campaign winds down, with Brownback gaining ground after falling behind over the summer.

There are about 3,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity in Kansas, supplying between 15 and 20 percent of the net electricity generation in the state. Wind energy directly or indirectly sustains 3,000 to 4,000 jobs in the state, according to the American Wind Energy Association. For instance, Siemens has a significant nacelle — the part of the turbine that contains the electronics — manufacturing facility in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Average wind speeds in the United States and Kansas at a height of 80 meters.

Average wind speeds in the United States and Kansas at a height of 80 meters.

Republican State Representative Tom Sloan said that climate change is a far more controversial subject than wind power in Kansas because “not everyone believes that it is driven by man’s actions.” Far more attention is paid to the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, he said, which extends from Texas to South Dakota. As the nation’s largest aquifer, it provides groundwater to many farmers relying on it for their livelihood. After decades of overuse, it is starting to run dry in places like western Kansas as the water table drops by as much as two to five feet a year in some areas of the state.
Scott Allegrucci, an energy and environmental consultant with a long history of involvement in Kansas’ energy sector, sees a stronger link between the state’s energy and water issues.

“Wind energy production uses no water as part of the process of creating electricity,” Allegrucci said. “Fossil fuel thermoelectric generation is the single largest consumer of water supplies nationally, barely above agriculture. So, wind energy reduces competition with agriculture, communities, and other industries for scarce water supplies, meaning a more sustainable resource base that those entities can use to attract and keep other jobs.”

Allegrucci said that Kansas should look to Iowa — which also has a Republican governor — as an example of how clean energy policies can be economically advantageous as large companies place a high value on the availability of renewables. He said Facebook decided to put its $300 million data center in Iowa largely because of the state’s increasing commitment to wind energy. Iowa currently leads the nation in the percentage of electricity generated by wind energy at more than one-quarter, despite having just the seventh best wind resource in the U.S.
Allegrucci noted that even though the Koch brothers have major business interests in natural gas, they supported the highly controversial 895-megawatt Holcomb coal-fired power plant in Kansas because they are scared of what wind could do to the national energy market.

“From my perspective, what they are fighting for is the libertarian pathology — that government is bad at all levels,” he said. “Part of their concern is the nexus of energy, climate, and government action. They don’t want this nexus to be realized and for people to start saying climate is an issue.”

Koch Industries is America’s second-largest private company after agribusiness giant Cargill. According to an in-depth Rolling Stone magazine feature on the Koch brothers, at 24 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year, their climate pollution outpaces oil giants such as Valero, Chevron and Shell. And the four oil refineries and 4,000 miles of pipeline under the company’s control are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Rolling Stone.

It is often said that the Koch brothers are in the oil business. That’s true as far as it goes — but Koch Industries is not a major oil producer. Instead, the company has woven itself into every nook of the vast industrial web that transforms raw fossil fuels into usable goods. Koch-owned businesses trade, transport, refine and process fossil fuels, moving them across the world and up the value chain until they become things we forgot began with hydrocarbons: fertilizers, Lycra, the innards of our smartphones.

And despite what has largely been a failed effort to attack clean energy laws nationwide, Allegrucci doesn’t see any sign of surrender. “I think the Kochs are playing ball at a level that just about no one else in government is,” he said. “My guess is they can afford to wait it out. They are still powerful, they still have billions of dollars.”

Allegrucci views the Kochs as dogmatic political activists while Smith considers them unusually ambitious industrialists. Either way, they are using both their financial and home turf advantage to steer the country away from climate action, even when the overall economic benefits are clear. While the Kochs and Brownback may not be in full collaboration in this election, they share a philosophy that putting others at great disadvantage is fine if it furthers their self-interests. In the meantime, the wind will keep blowing in Kansas.
“The Kansas City Royals didn’t get to the World Series by sitting around complaining that their opponents aren’t being fair by playing better baseball,” said Smith. “They studied their opponents and learned from them, and re-built the team so as to win. The Kochs have done the same.”

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