TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Efforts to propel Kansas’ renewable energy future are at a standstill, mired in legislative stalemate. At its center is a former TV weather personality who is using his chairmanship of a key committee to promote questionable claims about green energy and to spotlight complaints from opponents of wind and solar energy projects.
Republican state Sen. Mike Thompson’s pushback against renewable energy is pitting him not only against environmentalists, whose bills can’t get a vote in his committee, but also against big utilities and GOP colleagues, who say his measures to restrict new wind turbines and solar farms go too far.
While lawmakers in GOP-led states continue to resist the global push to drop fossil fuels, Kansas is unusual in giving such a big policy role to someone who publicly denies the link between human activity and climate change. Resistance to addressing climate change “is now starting to turn a little bit more towards the solutions side,” said Mandy Warner, the national Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and clean air policy director.
“You won’t say that you deny the problem, that there is an issue, that it’s happening,” Warner said.
Thompson is an often-affable, 64-year-old retired television meteorologist from the Kansas City area. His focus as Utilities Committee chair on fighting wind companies and building a case against renewable energy has left his committee with time for little else.
“It’s the worst possible place to put this person,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, which lobbies on climate issues.
Even with the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature’s conservative bent, environmentalists had hoped for modest green initiatives, such as studying green hydrogen’s potential, doing more to encourage energy efficiency or getting more electric vehicle charging stations along highways.
While Democratic states enacted dozens of laws last year aimed at combatting climate change, Republican states moved to protect fossil fuels, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For example, Kansas and at least nine other states now bar cities from ending natural gas service.
Yet renewable-energy advocates make headway even in conservative states by pitching its potential to create jobs and economic growth. For example, Oklahoma formed a task force last year that drafted proposals for launching a hydrogen fuel industry there.
“There may be individuals that don’t believe in climate change or whatnot, but they’re not driving the policy agenda because the economic opportunity is what’s really driving the policy agenda,” said Kimberly Svaty, a lobbyist for an alliance of renewable energy companies and investors with projects from Texas to the Canadian border.
In Minnesota, with Republicans trying to roll back “clean cars” standards, GOP state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, who chairs a committee on environmental spending, laughed when reminded of his 2011 comments calling climate change “a fallacy.” He now agrees that the climate is warming and said the real question is, “Can we possibly make a change as human beings?”
Kansas renewable-energy advocates argue that Thompson’s opposition is from an earlier political era. Kansas moved from renewables representing only 1.1% of its capacity for generating electricity in 2002 to 50% now, supplanting coal as the top source, according to federal data.
“Eliminating those investments is a bad bet for consumers. It’s a bad bet for the environment,” said Chuck Caisley, a senior vice president at Evergy, the largest electric company in Kansas.
Thompson said he’s defending frustrated property owners who are overmatched in countering big companies’ pressure on them, their neighbors and local officials. He said landowners are treated “like they’re collateral damage,” and, “I’m just sick of it.”
He sees renewable energy as unreliable and ultimately expensive, both outdated descriptions. He also promotes highly disputed arguments that noise and light “flicker” from turbine blades create health problems.
Thompson also stands out because of comments like his response to scientists’ concerns that coastal cities are in danger as polar ice caps melt and sea levels rise.
“Only 20 percent of the Earth’s history have we had polar ice caps. People assume they’ve always been there, and that’s not the case,” Thompson said during an interview. (The Earth has had ice caps at both poles for about the last 3 million years; modern humans have been on the planet for roughly 300,000 years.)
Thompson’s defenders include landowners fighting wind companies’ plans to build turbines in rural areas.
Debra Cramer acknowledged initially being “amazed” at Thompson’s willingness to go far outside his district to talk to landowners. She has been tracking a German energy company’s leases for land for new turbines around her home of Labette County in southeast Kansas. In December, voters there recalled one of their three county commissioners.
Cramer backs Thompson’s efforts to set statewide restrictions on wind turbines.
Senate President Ty Masterson, a conservative Wichita-area Republican, said he named Thompson chair of the Utilities Committee at the start of last year because of his professional background and his passion for energy issues.
“This whole process is about asking questions,” Masterson said.
Thompson, a U.S. Navy weather observer and forecaster as a young man, retired as a television meteorologist at the end of 2018 after spending most of his career in Kansas City. Local Republicans picked him to fill a state Senate vacancy at the start of 2020, and he won a full, four-year term that November.
He regularly pushes colleagues to question scientific consensus, telling them recently in a committee meeting that for his entire career, “I did my own homework and I thought outside the box.”
But when Thompson pushed his committee to approve a bill to require new wind turbines to have technology for dimming their lighting at night, members tabled the measure.
Sen. Rob Olson, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, told him: “I don’t want to send a message that I don’t want wind in this state.”
Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this report.
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