Kansas House energy panel switches leaders after letter to state utility regulator

Panel looking into February’s natural gas price spike, changes to prevent a repeat

By: - January 11, 2022 4:24 pm

Rep. Blaine Finch, who previously served on the House Energy, Utility and Telecommunications Committee, will take over as chairman from Rep. Joe Seiwert, who was removed from the post shortly after cosigning an unapproved letter to the Kansas Corporation Commission last month. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — House leadership removed the chairman of the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee after the panel’s former chairman escalated tensions with colleagues by sending a contentious letter urging Kansas regulators to delay utility rate increases from February’s polar vortex.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman said the decision to remove Rep. Joe Seiwert, a Pretty Prairie Republican, from his chairman position wasn’t related to the contents of the letter, disputing allegations made in a Kansas City Star editorial on Friday.

“Energy costs, availability and reliability are important issues for Kansans right now,” Ryckman said. “I’ve been clear from the very beginning — this decision had nothing to do with the content of a letter. It had everything to do with making sure legislators could put new ideas on table and get things done.”

Seiwert, who has served in the House since 2009, alienated colleagues with his sometimes abrasive communications while running the committee. House Pro-Tem Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican who previously served on the committee, filled in as chairman on Tuesday.

The cold snap in February from winter storm Uri left Kansas grappling with $1 billion fallout after gas prices spiked by up to 250 times over a few days. Estimates indicate some Kansas customers of Evergy electric company will pay $152.3 million in power costs over two years.

The Kansas City Star editorial also leveled accusations from former Senate Minority leader Jim Denning at Evergy for being what he called a “big bully.” He argued legislators and the KCC were kowtowing to the demands of the utility company.

Gina Penzig, a spokesperson for Evergy, said the accusations it was running roughshod over consumers and legislators alike were false.

“We have thousands of employees who live and work in communities across the state of Kansas and focus every day on doing their best to provide Kansans with reliable, sustainable and affordable electricity. Working with communities, stakeholders and legislators is part of who we are,” she said. “For the Kansas City Star or a former legislator to portray an entire company and its employees in a negative fashion is unfortunate and inaccurate.”

Justin Grady, chief of revenue requirements for the KCC, said Evergy was able to record a significant benefit during the winter storm. Because Evergy uses higher coal and nuclear power percentages than gas, the electric company produced more power and sold it for less money.

Grady presented findings Monday on the utility cost spike and recommendations to new committee chairman Finch and panel members. He credited a record high demand amid record declines in natural gas supply for pushing up prices, but he said Kansas had it easy compared with states like Oklahoma.

Grady said one change made to ensure 2021 doesn’t repeat is improved weather forecasting and extreme weather assessments. A revamped winter reliability assessment indicated a storm like last year’s would require the area to import about half the energy, he said.

“So, slight improvements,” Grady said. “There have been changes that have been made, and I think it shows in that reliability assessment, but it’s still tight and it definitely goes to show that there’s a lot of work left to do.”

Finch said the presentation to the House committee demonstrated the work put in by the KCC and utility companies to address winter storm Uri but was only a first step.

“We heard some recommendations today that may involve the Legislature taking action, and obviously there are some recommendations KCC can implement on its own,” Finch said. “I think next steps will be working out which are which and what role the legislature needs to play in implementing some of those recommendations.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.