Ernest Moniz, an enthusiastic booster of Southern Company’s Kemper “clean coal” power plant on which his Department of Energy spent almost a half billion dollars only to see it abandoned when the technology failed to operate, is joining the board of directors of Southern Company, the utility giant announced late Monday.
In a bizarre twist even for the ethically-incapacitated Trump years, Moniz will now be working alongside Tom Fanning, chief executive officer of the company Moniz was supposed to hold accountable for a project that went more than 300 percent over budget, ballooning to $7.5 billion from an initial estimate of $1.8 billion.
Moniz will actually join the board March 1st. When he does, Moniz, a nuclear physicist who has long championed nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration technology to help throttle down greenhouse gas emissions, is teaming up with the company that was the first to sue the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan.
In addition, Southern, the second-largest American utility company, operates a huge, aging and very dirty fleet of CO2-belching coal-fired power plants in the four states in which it does business as a regulated investor-owned utility.
And finally, Moniz, an emeritus professor of physics and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who told DOE employees in 2013 that “there is no ambiguity” about the scientific proof for climate change, will now be promoting the agenda of Tom Fanning, who finally admitted last March after years of evasions that he doesn’t believe in the science of global warming.
But it isn’t only Fanning. Moniz now ties himself to a company with a thirty-year institutional history of supporting climate denial and disinformation at all levels.
This included membership in the Global Climate Coalition, a powerful front group of over 50 trade groups and fossil fuel, chemical, industrial, consumer goods and utility companies that carried out a media campaign using climate change-denying scientists in which it planted industry-written news stories and used political influence to try to thwart the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Through its wholly-owned Southern Company Services subsidiary, Southern spent $469,560 to support the work of notorious climate denier Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, an aerospace engineer who claimed the sun is responsible for global warming. The funding began in 2005 and only stopped when Southern’s involvement was exposed in 2015.
Moniz’s signature domestic initiative was his support for Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Because it promised to capture and sequester the CO2 from coal emissions, Moniz saw the Kemper project as an important component of the CPP, and went out of his way to sing its praises. That continued long after utility customers in Mississippi and most environmental organizations had turned against it, calling Kemper, in the words of the Sierra Club, “dirty, expensive and unnecessary.”
For a sitting secretary of energy, Moniz’s constant promotion of Kemper and Southern Company stood out. Fanning has admitted that he and Moniz were “kind of a tag team.” Indeed their relationship was unusually chummy.
During his years at the DOE between May 2013 and January 2017, Moniz and Fanning traveled extensively together, appearing in Turkey and other foreign countries to promote the licensing of Kemper’s proprietary coal gasification technology. Fanning and other Southern executives often made it sound like the plant was a functioning example of carbon capture when actually it never produced electricity from “clean” coal.
In the fall of 2014, Moniz brought a delegation of foreign energy ministers to tour Kemper.
Yet when asked about the difference between the optimistic rhetoric and Kemper’s dismal performance at an event during the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016, Moniz refused to answer questions, claiming he was appearing as a private citizen.
Exactly how Moniz and Fanning conducted their “clean coal” world tour has yet to be divulged.
The Climate Investigations Center submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for Moniz’s travel records in October. Last month, a DOE spokeswoman explained that a search had located “several thousand” documents relating to Moniz’s travel. The sheer volume of material was causing delay, DOE claimed.
As secretary of energy, Moniz’s support for Kemper and Southern Company never wavered, despite the mounting evidence of fraud and disinformation by Southern about the project.
For instance, Southern Company promised Kemper would go on-line in the spring of 2014, even long after it knew that was unachievable, and it faked internal completion estimates by sabotaging a computer scheduling tool, according to corporate records and a company whistleblower. The on-line date was changed numerous times, until last February, when Southern admitted the plant would never enter commercial operation. The deception reportedly extended to cost projections as well.
The apparent flim-flam on budget and deadlines triggered lawsuits and an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. After Trump’s election, the SEC investigation was ended without explanation. The suits have yet to be resolved.
Kemper, now operating as a natural gas-fired power plant, albeit the most expensive in history, faced strong opposition from the beginning in the 23 impoverished eastern Mississippi counties that were to receive – and would have to pay for – its power. And while Fanning promised repeatedly that electric customers wouldn’t be asked to take on its cost overruns, that in fact was exactly what the company tried to do with Kemper’s almost $8 billion price tag, plus another estimated $200 million per year in operating and maintenance costs. By one calculation, the bill would have come to $43,000 per household for the roughly one-third of Mississippi serviced by Southern.
To some Mississippians, Moniz’s move to the boardroom seemed just a cynical final chapter to a tawdry saga.
“You know, if this Kemper plant had actually gone through and we had to pay for it? That would have mortgaged the future of the poorest state in the nation with the most expensive power plant ever built in the United States,” said Louie Miller, director of the Mississippi chapter of the Sierra Club.
“And it was Moniz who gave the federal government’s seal of approval to all of that, and apparently never thought twice about it,” said Miller.