When the facts are piling up against you, change the subject. That is former Governor Haley Barbour’s new, painfully obvious strategy as he continues to lobby for Southern Company and its bottomless money pit, the Kemper County Coal Plant. Last week, Barbour compared the cost overruns and delays of the Kemper Plant to the construction of our Grand Gulf Nuclear Facility.
Haley Barbour knows the facts: He’s taken truckloads of money from Southern Company as their chief lobbyist for the past 30 years. Our state government, which he has lorded over for almost as long, is the butt of all jokes. This poverty-stricken state and its people will be paying his fossil fuel buddies at Southern Company for several more lifetimes. The Kemper County Coal Plant is an overpriced failure and one of the most egregious examples of crony capitalism in our nation’s history.
Yet Lord Barbour has the arrogance — nay, the audacity — to understate the total cost of the overruns: “A couple of billion,” he called it. No, Sire, it’s $4.2 billion. At the risk of badgering the witness, let’s say that together again. $4.2 billion. That is not the total budget, mind you. Just the unanticipated costs. The total cost to date for the Kemper Plant is about the same as our overall state budget.
“Grand Gulf took more than twice as long to build and cost more than twice as much,” Barbour told the Mississippi Business Journal. “And after it went online it initially caused a spike in rates,” Barbour bellowed. The folks at Grand Gulf and Entergy should sue for gross misrepresentation.
Barbour knows the delays and cost overruns for Grand Gulf were related to the federal government’s incredibly cautious response to the partial nuclear meltdown at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania. At that time, a variety of rule changes involving nuclear plants had to be vetted. No nuclear plant was allowed to come online until those rules were approved and implemented. For Barbour to suggest anything else led to the delays at Grand Gulf is a lie.
Here’s some more glowing differences Barbour failed to mention. Grand Gulf was designed to provide energy over three states: Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Southern Company is foisting the Kemper County Coal Plant on a few poor counties in Mississippi alone.
Grand Gulf was a proven and tested technology and, no doubt, became a better, more reliable facility with the rule changes after the near disaster at Three-Mile Island. The Kemper County Coal Plant is not just experimental technology, it is pie-in-the-sky-let’s-flip-the-switch-and-hope-to-God-it-works technology. And nobody knows, including Southern Company executives and engineers, what other problems and costs may plague Kemper in the future. How much more expensive will it get when the EPA finally decides to make those “clean coal” claims truly clean?
A couple of close and trusted friends of our former Governor, good conservatives who care about good government and fiscal responsibility, have expressed their disappointment over Barbour’s continued pushing of the Kemper Plant. “He knows it’s not going to work,” one of them shared, “and he knows it’s bad for Mississippi. It may even break us. But, he’s in too deep now.”
We all know Barbour has a fondness for Uncle Remus stories, so perhaps he can appreciate how he is already trapped in Southern Company’s version of the Tar-Baby. “Brer Barbour and the Coal-Baby” may become our state’s most beloved cautionary tale. We may have read it to our children by candlelight.
Initially, Southern Company’s now $6.5 billion Coal-Baby was sold to Haley as a one billion dollar project. That was right after the State of Florida told Southern Company to pack up their dirty little lignite experiment and get out. Southern either figured Haley for a sucker or Haley and Southern together figured the people of Mississippi were the suckers. Either way, expect us to all be sucking on this one for a long, long time.
So now Southern Company is experimenting on the poorest educated, poorest informed, and just plain poorest state in the union. But, there have been rumblings. That’s why Southern Company trotted Haley out to lobby last week, ostensibly to announce that he and his former economic development chief Gray Swoope had formed a subsidiary of the Butler Snow law firm. Haley had to make a splash, so he offered a bold prediction: the Kemper County Coal plant will be even more successful than Grand Gulf at providing energy for the folks of Mississippi, Barbour said.
It’s bunk and Barbour knows it. Nuclear power remains the safest, most inexpensive form of energy we have. Coal, oil and gas cannot compare. The nuclear industry has the toughest, strictest rules of which to adhere. In addition, there is not a nuclear facility in the country better managed and more efficient than Grand Gulf. Evaluators consider Grand Gulf a world-class nuclear power plant with some of the industry’s most innovative engineers and operators.
Haley wants us to believe Kemper County Coal can be better for Mississippi than Grand Gulf. But not everyone is a sheep for Barbour’s shears. Many Mississippians are no longer buying what Barbour just can’t stop selling. Public opinion is changing in regards to Kemper: no small feat considering how the Haley-controlled media machine in Mississippi has been trying to spin Kemper.
Have you heard the latest commercial featuring Harry Alford, the President of the Black Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.? Running ad nauseam, Alford waxes eloquent about Southern Company and tries to convince listeners that the recent Mississippi Supreme Court ruling will be the reason the Kemper Plant is going to cost taxpayers and consumers an arm and a leg. Yet another lie we cannot afford to believe.
Is Harry Alford really that interested in how the people of our state pay for energy? Are Mississippi’s minority businesses getting in on those lucrative Kemper Plant contracts? Take a wild guess. One wonders what Harry Alford and his Chamber might have been paid for such kind, deceptive words.
Southern Company will spend any amount of money to get what they want. They certainly have plenty of it. So just try and follow their campaign contributions during our current state elections.
But it is worth noting that Southern Company stock holders, who reap about $2 billion in dividends annually, are now beginning to ask questions and investigating the facts behind Kemper. There is also some concern among the Board of Directors for the Mississippi Power Company, a subsidiary of Southern Company. Perhaps some resignations will be offered as a few clear thinking folks try to distance themselves from this fiasco.
Maybe the Public Service Commission and Governor Bryant will come out from under Barbour’s veil of bunk and demand that Southern Company pay for the entire cost of their Kemper experiment. And if by some lignite miracle, Kemper Coal does winds up producing energy Mississippians are willing to pay for, then we can purchase as much or as little as we want. But not one Mississippi county nor one Mississippian should be on the hook for it now, save our former Governor, of course.
Lord Barbour may continue to spin this however he pleases, after all he’s a paid lobbyist. His legacy as the state’s most brilliant political mind and most powerful political force is secure. But here’s an honest prediction: in 20 years the Kemper County Coal Plant will still be an abject failure, particularly when compared to Grand Gulf.
» David Dallas is a political writer. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.