Tuesday, July 5, 2016

In Mississippi, the Dirty Mess of Clean Coal

The Kemper "clean coal" power plant in Mississippi was intended to be a test bed for new technologies that would allow the continuing burning of coal without pumping too much carbon dioxide into the air. But the cost of the plant, initially projected at $2.1 billion, has nearly tripled, and it is still not operational. It turns out, as everyone ought to have suspected, that no matter how well the technology works it will never make economic sense. The only reason anyone burns coal for power is that coal is cheap. Capturing carbon dioxide is expensive. So why bother to burn coal at all, when you could go with natural gas or solar power instead?

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?


G. Verloren said...

If the argument that won over Obama administration was that they'd be helping struggling coal communities, why not just create a program that gives money directly to those communities instead? Why go along with an obvious swindle? Or were they simply strong armed and blackmailed into handing out the pork?

leif said...

Because that would be personal welfare, which we know is not in the republican playbook at all. Replacing that with corporate welfare is highly encouraged since we know that underwriting businesses creates jobs, stimulates the economy and ... oh man I just can't keep it up. It just hurts. It's just more evidence of our borked system. I think the analysis of this being the intersection of good intentions and weakness doesn't go far enough; this is one of the inevitable results of people failing to change efficiently.