Among the many names swirling in the Obama VP buzz is that of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. A second-term Democratic governor in what’s traditionally seen as a bastion of conservatism, Sebelius earned national attention as the chair of the Democratic Governors Association in 2007 and for delivering the Democratic response to this year’s State of the Union. But for many environmentalists, she made her mark with something else entirely.

Kathleen Sebelius. Photo: Mindy Ricketts

Kathleen Sebelius.

Earlier this year, Sebelius went head to head with a major utility company and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, three times vetoing bills that would have allowed two 700-megawatt, coal-fired power generators to be built in the state.

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The battle began in October 2007 when a state environment official rejected Sunflower’s permit to build the new plants on the basis of carbon dioxide emissions — the first such rejection in the U.S. The state legislature fought back with bills that would have allowed the plants to proceed and stripped the state’s environmental officials of the authority to grant permits, and the coal industry waged a nasty campaign against the governor. But Sebelius held firm, and in May vetoed the legislation for a third time, to the cheers of climate champions across the nation.

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Derided by the coal industry and beloved by its critics, Sebelius has advocated for a major increase in the amount of wind power generated in the state, and pushed for massive reforms to the state’s energy plan.

Grist caught up with Sebelius by phone this week to talk more about the coal fight in Kansas, the lessons it can deliver for other states, and what she would bring to Obama’s ticket should she get the nod.

Grist: Every major coal group came to Kansas to fight you on this coal plant issue, because they thought it was the heartland and they could win there. So what happened?

Sebelius: I think that Kansans began to understand that there were some real choices to be made. A lot of the debate became about whether or not we were incurring too much harm for the good that would come out of additional power. Very little of the power that was scheduled to be produced was for Kansas. It actually was electricity that would be exported to Colorado and Texas, yet we would own the carbon. And Kansas already has a tremendously heavy footprint — I think we’re 10th per capita in the country in terms of our current carbon footprint. So we would get all the carbon, and we didn’t really need the power.

[An] additional factor was that we have an enormous asset in wind energy, and folks in our state are very supportive of maximizing that renewable energy source before we do anything else, recognizing that it’s underutilized right now, it has enormous potential, and it has no negative environmental impact. And so before we build any more coal, we should really ramp up wind. So the debate and the discussion was unlike what I think a lot of the coal companies expected, which was just basically a yes or a no, and this was all about economic development and jobs. It became [about] the consequences to that — what are the choices and the health costs, the environmental costs. And I think for a lot of legislators that became a real tipping point.

Grist: Your message in the coal fight was that building additional plants now is likely to create a significant economic liability for Kansas in the future. So how do we promote this sort of message on a national level?

Sebelius: In the very least it’s compelling to make an argument based on the uncertainty of [the future costs of coal]. Virtually everyone acknowledges that there will be some additional financial costs, and until Congress sets a clear set of rules, nobody knows what that is. That leads to an argument about [whether] it is just economically foolish to make a significant investment when you don’t know what the final costs will be if there are other alternatives.

For every state in the country there are alternatives in terms of renewable energy sources. There are alternatives in terms of much-enhanced energy efficiency programs, new building standards, things that could be put in place right away which won’t have an economic liability, which won’t have an environmental liability and at least get us to the point where there is a clear set of rules so that in the future making strategic decisions then becomes easier … [With coal] you are incurring a liability of uncertain amounts. You can’t tell your shareholders with a straight face that this is going to make us money into the future, because you don’t know that.

Grist: What sort of precedent do you hope this coal fight sets nationally?

Sebelius: [Kansas is] a state where we’ve had relatively inexpensive and very reliable energy sources, and our citizens were ready to engage in a fairly complex discussion of where we go from here. We were not a state where energy prices were high and that drove consumer behavior, or where were running out of power, which has happened on the East and West coasts. I think it’s an indication that the citizenry is ready to engage in some serious discussions about what our comprehensive energy policy should be into the future.

There’s no question that this administration and Congress has done a huge disservice by not developing a clear energy strategy and refusing to join the world community in a plan where America agrees to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce our greenhouse gases. I think that’s really got to change, and I think that notion is very much alive and well across the country as we demonstrated here in the heartland … I think people are ready for that discussion, and I think it should give some momentum to a new administration and a new Congress. If this kind of battle can occur in Kansas and be successful, I think it’s an indication that it can occur in Congress in the future.

Grist: What role should coal play in the national energy portfolio? Is there a future for coal?

Sebelius: I think there certainly has to be a lot of accelerated research and technology emphasis on whether or not we really can reach a design for clean coal technology … Most recently the feds pulled the plug on FutureGen, which was supposed to be entirely focused on that. Given our enormous supply of coal in this country, I think it’s wise for us to spend some real resources on that technology. Is it feasible? How far away from it are we? … Most people I talk to say 10 to 15 years, if it ever exists at all. So as you look out at the next 25 years of energy policy of this country, that’s a big “if.” I think we need to make that determination. But yeah, I think if there is a process that can capture carbon and sequester it for long periods of time that becomes economically feasible, you bet coal’s going to be part of our future.

Grist: Kansas recently received a $50,000 grant from the National Governors Association Center to pursue clean energy research. What are the big plans for the grant?

Sebelius: We honestly just received that. One of the things [we already have underway] is a comprehensive climate change study led by one of our key business leaders, Jack Pelton, who is the president of Cessna Aircraft. It includes folks from the agricultural, transportation, business, and manufacturing sectors, as well as key cabinet officials and legislators to really develop a long-term strategy for Kansas for lowering our greenhouse gas emissions and determining how we keep our economy thriving at the same time we make some real changes in long-term energy policy. A number of states have done that already. I think it’s an opportunity for us to have a dialogue across the state to bring various sectors and representatives to the table to really take a look at how we make smart, strategic decisions which don’t negatively impact the environment and yet allow the economy to grow. That’s exactly the sort of framework I’m hoping Congress will undertake as they take a look at a new administration to develop new energy policy.

Grist: You’re working on getting a renewable portfolio standard in place in the state. How’s the progress on that?

Sebelius: Actually, we have kind of an interesting situation, where I was aware that we would not be able to pass a renewable portfolio standard through the legislature. They’ve made it pretty clear in previous discussions that kind of mandate was not appealing. So instead I brought together all of our utility companies almost a year ago and asked for a voluntary RPS to be put in place: 10 percent wind by 2010 and 20 percent wind by 2020, and at least a 10 percent reduction in overall energy uses, and to my somewhat surprise, they all agreed, and we signed a kind of memorandum of understanding. In fact in Kansas we will be ahead of the goal of 10 percent wind by the end of this year. We have already exceeded that goal and we’re two years ahead of the timetable we agreed to. And the companies are taking it very seriously. Even the company that I did battle with on the coal plants has kept their commitment on wind because, quite frankly, they see it as an economic incentive that folks are eager for.

Grist: You’ve been mentioned as a possible running mate for Barack Obama, and you’ve praised his energy plan. What do you think you would bring to the Democratic ticket on climate and energy policy, should Obama ask you to be his running mate?

Sebelius: I think he’s going to have an array of dazzling choices of people who are eager to help him in any way they can. And I do think whatever happens I am going to work as hard as I possibly can to make sure he’s the next president because I think he has the leadership, talent, and capabilities and vision to make the changes that we need in this country. This experience I’ve had in Kansas I think is helpful in helping to provide some lessons to the members of Congress on what some of the issues are and what some of the polarizing battles are likely to be, and who some of the special interest groups are who show up to to do battle. Whatever we’ve had in Kansas will be on steroids as the Congressional debate unfolds.

Grist: You and Obama are both strong voices for putting aside partisan battles. But on climate change, it seems like the maximum of what’s politically possible is well short of the minimum we need to do to solve the problem. It’s an issue where consensus won’t get us where we need to go. What would you do to fight the political battles needed to move the consensus on this issue, even if that means aggravating partisan rifts?

Sebelius: I think that the experience here gives me a lens into a little bit about what folks are thinking about. I do think that in this country we may be at something of a tipping point, where the momentum is beginning to shift … I think there’s a real willingness to engage in strategic, longer-term thinking, understanding that what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for our planet, it’s not sustainable for our health, it’s not sustainable financially, and it doesn’t make any sense.

It’s not going to be easy. I think that we have these two major challenges facing a new Congress on a domestic level — the delivery of health care in a much more universal fashion, and developing a comprehensive and sustainable energy policy are enormously important, and both require very heavy lifting, challenging special interest groups who have made a lot of money off the current system, figuring out ways to tell people things they may not want to hear. There’s no silver bullet, there’s no easy fix on either of those. But I think in both areas I am optimistic that folks are ready to move ahead.