EDITORIALS/Mississippi clean coal slaw
Wednesday, June 12, 2013 1:00 AM
The following editorial appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 30, 2013:
President Obama wants the U.S. to lead the world in green power, with his energy regulators imposing a moratorium on new coal plants and grinding down the ones still operating. But when the supposedly environmentally friendly replacements do come on line, they face the familiar obstacle of . . . environmentalists.
Consult the saga of the $4.3 billion green-energy experiment in "clean coal" now being conducted in Kemper County, Mississippi. The first-of-its-kind project is one of the few commercial demonstrations of carbon capture and storage technology, which will convert low-grade lignite coal to gas for power generation and then strip out most of the carbon dioxide that will be sold as a byproduct for unconventional oil drilling.
The project's budget has nearly doubled over original estimates, with the utility Southern Company booking a $540 million charge against earnings this month and sacking the president of its Mississippi Power subsidiary. This accountability is unusual. In the green-energy business, cost overruns are usually eaten by taxpayers first, and then electric consumers are forced to pay higher prices, but shareholders seldom pay. Managers in government who mess up are rarely held accountable for failure, a la Solyndra.
The latest problems are largely the result of higher labor costs and using more expensive piping. Southern also told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it uncovered financial problems related to the Kemper project that "constitute a material weakness in internal control over financial reporting."
The bigger news is that the environmental movement is showing far less forbearance for trial and error than it usually does for green science projects. Pressure groups led by the Sierra Club have filed a barrage of lawsuits to stop the plant and are also lobbying the state utility regulator, the Mississippi Public Service Commission, to revoke approval. Southern faces a "prudency hearing" this summer to prove that the capital costs it wants to recover from ratepayers are legitimate.
The irony is that the enviros are objecting because they claim the consumer costs are too high. Mississippi Sierra Club president Louie Miller says that "We can't allow struggling families to be charged for a $4 billion plant that doesn't operate as promised."
That's some switcheroo because the whole point of green-energy activism is to raise carbon energy prices, such as through cap and tax. But having succeeded in banishing traditional coal-fired power from the future electric-power mix, the greens are now trying to scuttle any realistic alternative, even the clean coal they claim to support.
Mr. Obama often touts his support for clean coal, and he ran campaign ads in Ohio attacking Mitt Romney for being insufficiently pro-clean coal. In May 2010, then Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the Kemper project "of national importance" in a letter to the Public Service Commission. The sudden Mississippi opposition gives such support the flavor of a political bait and switch.
The Magnolia State hasn't built a power plant of any kind in 30 years and its aging coal fleet is being retired under pressure from Mr. Obama's regulators. The real green energy policy seems to be none of the above.