Tuesday, July 5, 2016
In Mississippi, the Dirty Mess of Clean Coal
The answer is politics, especially the clout of the coal industry and its Republican friends. They persuaded the Obama administration to invest in the plant as a sop to the coal miners and coal mining towns that are being hurt by their clean power plans. And to judge from this expose in the Times, a bunch of well-connected power executives and their friends quickly organized to get as much of that money for themselves as possible. Among other things the Times reveals that the model used to show the plant could make money forecasts a price for natural gas that is five times the current price. The main victims will turn out to be the electricity consumers in the poorest state, who will be stuck paying surcharges for this boondoggle for decades.
This is to me an archetypal American scandal. Conservatives will blame it on government meddling in the economy, and liberals will blame it on corporate greed. Really the problem is at the intersection of good intentions with human weakness. Democrats want to transition away from burning coal but not to destroy the livelihoods of miners, which is an absurd position; meanwhile some Republicans want to burn more coal because they have persuaded themselves that burning coal is part of God's plan for a capitalist America; and some businessmen saw in this a nonsensical array of objectives an opportunity to make money hand over fist. After all, since the overall goal (clean coal) is pretty much impossible, who could blame them for their inevitable failure?