Will to power: the alchemical transformation of “Mississippi mud” into clean coal (and back again) in Kemper County, MS

Authors: David Baylis*, Delta State University, Jordan Howell, Rowan University
Topics: Energy, Rural Geography, Landscape
Keywords: Mississippi, coal, double diversion, alchemy
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Evergreen, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

When Mississippi Power began construction on its coal gasification project in Kemper County, Mississippi in 2010, it was touted as a central component of America’s energy future; this vision is perhaps best described as alchemical. Through the state of the art Kemper facility, 'Mississippi mud' would be transformed into gold, of the clean coal variety. It offered the fusion of gasification and carbon capture, local and national bipartisan support, and energy self-sufficiency with local economic development. Kemper County was deemed a perfect site for this effort, with its 40 year supply of lignite and its position just outside the post-Katrina hazard zone.

Billions of dollars and years behind schedule, and with layoffs impending and a reworking of the plant’s operations, the alchemical dream was not to be.

In this paper, I deploy the concept of double diversion (Freudenburg 2005) to understand the discursive transformation of Kemper County, Mississippi into a cauldron from which America’s clean coal energy futures could be conjured. I argue that the Kemper Project can perhaps best be understood as being willed into existence via privileged access (i.e. the arrangement of interests and investments that forged the resource networks and expert relationships that fabricated the project’s material viability) and privileged accounts (i.e. the discursive efforts aimed at maintaining support for the plant amidst continuing setbacks and delays). The outcomes of this willful alchemy, however, have had very real and transformative consequences for this impoverished rural county in eastern Mississippi; few of which were initially promised.

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