Progress on a planned coal-fired power plant in Kansas was put on hold yesterday after a judge sided with environmental groups, ruling that a federal agency ignored requirements set forth by environmental laws in approving the project and providing tax incentives.

In a ruling that agreed with arguments by activist organizations Earthjustice and The Sierra Club, DC-based federal Judge Emmett Sullivan found that the U.S. government's Rural Utilities Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, overstepped its authority in pushing the project forward.

The ruling means the long-debated Sunflower coal power plant will have to undergo more public input and more detailed environmental studies before it can proceed.

The judge's decision in the case was issued under seal to protect the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation's business information. Kansas media mostly quoted attorneys for the Sierra Club, who'd seen the long-form ruling. They said a condensed version would be made public in the coming weeks.

“With this much debt and federal support, Sunflower is effectively a ward of the federal government, Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in an advisory. "As a public project, the Holcomb plant requires close public scrutiny and a meaningful analysis of alternatives and environmental risks. Without it, both taxpayers and our environment are at risk."

The plant was initially facing roadblocks from then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who vetoed four Republican bills that tried to require approval of the project.

After her resignation to head the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services, the new interim governor, Democrat Mark Parkinson, "made a deal" with the Sunflower plant, according to Dieon Liefler, writing for The Wichita Eagle.

That arrangement would provide for significant carbon offsets and other improvements to make a scaled-back version of the project a possibility.

This week's ruling puts that in doubt, however, and will likely force the federal government to reevaluate other options for environmental offsets to the coal plant.

"Sunflower, as well as many other electric co-ops, has been propped up by taxpayers for years," Sierra Club representative Mark Kresowik said in a release. "It’s time for the federal government to take a hard look at the risks of continuing to support the development of new coal projects that rely on dirty and outdated technology."

Image credit: A coal plant, by Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia.