A whistle-blower’s allegations, based in part on secretly- but legally-recorded conversations, are just the latest in a series of setbacks for a carbon capture and storage project in Mississippi that was once seen as a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s climate plan.
When work began on Southern Company’s Kemper plant, the project “was hailed as a way to bring thousands of jobs to Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, and to extend a lifeline to the dying coal industry,” the New York Times reports. “The sense of hope is fading fast, however. The Kemper coal plant is more than two years behind schedule and more than US$4 billion over its initial budget, $2.4 billion, and it is still not operational.”
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The plant and the company are under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, ratepayers are suing Southern for alleged fraud, and “Members of Congress have described the project as more boondoggle than boon,” writes investigative reporter Ian Urbina. “The mismanagement is particularly egregious, they say, given the urgent need to rein in the largest source of dangerous emissions around the world: coal plants.”
The Times exposé is based on “thousands of pages of public records, previously undisclosed internal documents and emails, and 200 hours of secretly though legally recorded conversations” obtained from whistle-blower Brett Wingo, Urbina writes. Those sources, combined with more than 30 interviews, “show that the plant’s owners drastically understated the project’s cost and timetable, and repeatedly tried to conceal problems as they emerged.”
Ultimately, “the system of checks and balances that is supposed to keep such projects on track was outweighed by a shared and powerful incentive: The company and regulators were eager to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies for the plant, which was also aggressively promoted by Haley Barbour, who was Southern’s chief lobbyist before becoming the governor of Mississippi.”
In conversations with Wingo, at least six senior plant engineers said project delays, cost overruns, safety violations, and shoddy work were at least partly caused by mismanagement or fraud. “It has nothing to do with the design, it has nothing to do with the technology, it just has to do with poor project management,” said plant engineer Landon Lunsford. But “as long as they can talk away the results as attributable to something else other than just poor performance, the other public service commissions can’t hold them over the fire as much.”
Urbina’s detailed account of the project captures the high stakes attached to a “first-of-its-kind power plant that was supposed to prove that ‘clean coal’ was not an oxymoron—that it was possible to produce electricity from coal in a way that emits far less pollution, and to turn a profit while doing so.” Now, after at least eight successive months of delays and cost overruns, the Obama administration is scaling back its spending on clean coal technologies, while advocates scramble to make the case that Kemper isn’t representative of the carbon capture and storage options they’re trying to promote.
The problems with this particular project are attributed to a system that was supposed to convert cheap coal into synthetic gas. But “critics say the principal challenge of carbon capture is cost,” Urbina notes, “and the gasifier’s ability to use cheap coal has always been advertised as key to making the project affordable.”