Utility giant Southern Co. is being sued by a company engineer who says the company misled shareholders and may have violated federal law about the safety and timeline for opening an advanced clean coal power plant in Mississippi.
The whistleblower, Brett Wingo, worked on the clean coal project in Kemper County, Miss., from 2007 to 2016. His legal team filed the lawsuit late Tuesday in federal district court in Birmingham, Ala., claiming that beyond the several safety violations and false claims, the company violated two major federal financial disclosure laws in addition to state law.
The Wingo lawsuit says the company violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Dodd-Frank Act, and Mississippi state law by repeatedly misleading investors on the "commercial operations date," according to the two law firms representing Wingo, Doyle LLP and Heninger Garrison Davis LLC.
Southern Co. has spent seven years and nearly $8 billion to build the clean coal gasification plant, which initially was projected to cost $3 billion in 2010. The plant had been slated to open three years ago, with the last estimate for opening the plant slated for this year. However, the plant is now suspended until state regulators can figure out how to move forward since the bulk of the plant's cost comes from rate-paying customers.
The plant has been burning natural gas and will continue to do so until the utility regulators and the company reach a deal on the clean coal segment of the plant.
Wingo had alerted the company's management "repeatedly" in 2013 and 2014 about his concerns, "including several warnings that the reported [commercial operations date] was unjustifiably optimistic."
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the wake of the Enron and Worldcom scandals nearly two decades ago, seeks to protect investors by requiring a higher level of transparency from companies. The more recent Dodd-Frank Act also requires a higher level of financial disclosure.
Southern Co. management "again and again offered false promises about the feasibility, schedule and safety" as part of "a continuing effort to capture hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies; inflate short-term stock prices; ensure continued payment of unjustifiable executive compensation packages; and impose billions of dollars for decades to come in higher electricity costs for captive consumers in their monopoly utility market."
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The company reported this month that its second-quarter financial statement included the losses experienced at the Mississippi Power Company's integrated coal gasification combined cycle facility in Kemper County, "which significantly impacted the presentation of earnings and earnings per share," the company said.
Mississippi state regulators are evaluating a plan to stop funding the plant's coal gasification facility and to instead burn only natural gas to produce electricity. The company added that "further charges of uncertain amounts may occur in future periods in connection with the resolution of the Mississippi Public Service Commission's Kemper Settlement Docket."
The integrated gasification power plant takes low-grade coal and converts it to a synthetic form of natural gas that it burns in a commercial combined cycle natural gas plant. The gasification plant strips carbon dioxide out of the synthetic gas to sequester it or sell it to drillers to help extract hard-to-reach oil in a nearby petroleum field. The plant is expected to be one option touse coal under climate change regulations.
Southern's plan is to first develop and then license the technology to utilities in Asia and Africa. The Trump administration is looking for ways to renegotiate the Paris climate change deal to benefit clean coal and cleaner fossil fuel exports such as natural gas, according to the State Department.
The official policy of the administration is to exit the Paris Agreement that was signed by former President Barack Obama. "As the president indicated in his June 1 announcement and subsequently, he is open to re-engaging in the Paris Agreement if the United States can identify terms that are more favorable to it, its businesses, its workers, its people, and its taxpayers," a State Department official told the Washington Examiner.
The official added: "The United States supports a balanced approach to climate policy that lowers emissions while promoting economic growth and ensuring energy security and will continue to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through innovation and technology breakthroughs, and work with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and deploy renewable and other clean energy sources, given the importance of energy access and security in many nationally determined contributions."