RIDGELAND, Miss. (AP) — Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Tuesday defended a coal-fired power plant that's under construction in Kemper County, saying the U.S. should develop a variety of energy sources, including Mississippi-mined lignite that will be used at the plant.
As governor from 2004 to 2008, Republican Barbour signed a law that allows Mississippi Power Co. to charge higher rates to finance the Kemper plant.
Mississippi Power Co. is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co., which has long been represented by BGR, the Washington lobbying firm Barbour co-founded more than a decade before he became governor.
During a luncheon speech Tuesday to the Madison County Business League, Barbour acknowledged the financial link between Southern Co. and BGR. He noted after the speech that he was not working for BGR while he was governor; his assets were in a blind trust.
Energy rate increases must to be approved by the three-member Mississippi Public Service Commission, an elected board that regulates utilities. The PSC earlier this year approved a 15 percent rate increase for Mississippi Power Co., and the commission has promised another 3 percent increase next year to help the company cover costs for the Kemper County plant. The company also says it will need another 4 percent increase to pay off nearly $1 billion in bonds for the project. Altogether, those changes would be a 22 percent increase for Mississippi Power customers, who are in the southern part of the state.
Barbour said Tuesday that when Entergy opened its Grand Gulf nuclear power plant in Claiborne County in the mid-1980s, its rates jumped 54 percent.
"It is normal for there to be a rate spike when a new baseload power plant comes online," Barbour said. "Baseload, by the way ... that's the plant that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year so that if you flip a switch, the lights come on.... Every time, for the last 40 years at least in Mississippi, we've had a rate spike after a baseload plant was built."
On a separate issue in his speech about energy Tuesday, Barbour said Mississippi should explore options for storing or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, a topic discussed in recent weeks by Mississippi Energy Institute, a group that Barbour started in 2009.
Barbour acknowledged the idea has been debated but said reprocessing could create high-tech jobs with good pay checks. "This is going to be an enormous economic Godsend for somebody," Barbour said.
The chairman of MEI is Barry Cannada, an attorney at the Butler Snow law firm in Ridgeland where Barbour has worked in government relations and business development since finishing his second term as governor in early 2012. The MEI president is Patrick Sullivan, who worked on Barbour's gubernatorial staff as an energy policy adviser.
Brandon Presley, the lone Democrat on the Public Service Commission, has said repeatedly that Mississippi should not become a storage site for more nuclear material.
"I saw Preston, uh, Brandon Presley, yeah, excuse me, I saw Brandon Presley's remarks about nuclear in Mississippi," Barbour said during his speech. "I am glad that it is being discussed that we should look at whether Mississippi wants to be for storing and reprocessing nuclear energy. We already store nuclear energy in Mississippi. We store it, and we've stored it for 20 years right at Grand Gulf."
Presley responded later on Facebook: "So... former Gov. Haley Barbour just told a Madison County business group that nuclear waste storage in Mississippi would be a 'Godsend'! Really? If he likes it that much maybe The Good Lord will send it to him at his nice Washington, D.C. home."
Several times during his speech, Barbour criticized people who oppose some types of energy development, including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process of drilling for natural gas.
"The left, led by radical environmentalists, continue to oppose fracking technology," Barbour said.