By Kennedy Maize

Here’s a delicious irony. In South Carolina, an iconic former Republican governor and the current Republican governor, who reportedly has presidential ambitions, are feuding over a coal-fired power plant proposed by the state government’s own electric utility.

Most intriguing is that the former governor, oral surgeon Jim Edwards, 81, Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of energy, is pushing for $600-MW coal plant, with a $1 billion price tag. Edwards is head of a group – financing unknown at this writing – called South Carolina Action for Jobs. “As governor,” said Edwards, “I learned how important it is to create good jobs, and now, with our state’s unemployment rate the third-highest in the nation, that’s more important than ever. We can’t have industry is we don’t have energy.”

Edwards was elected South Carolina governor in 1974, the first Republican voted into the statehouse in the Palmetto State since 1876. Edwards was named secretary of energy in 1981. He was Reagan’s pick for DOE largely because he was enthusiastically pro-nuclear, while the incoming Republicans viewed the Carter administration as anti-nuclear (despite Jimmy Carter’s training as a nuclear engineer under the legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover).

The current Republican governor, Mark Sanford, after dithering for some time, this week came out against the coal plant. He had earlier supported it. The state Department of Heath and Environmental Control (DHEC) earlier gave the project tentative approval for an air permit. But the agency meets this week to review an appeal, brought by local environmentalists. The greens now have Sanford’s support.

Sanford told reporters, “As policymakers, in times of changing situations, we must be willing to change.” Sanford said the declining economy has reduced electric demand and undermined the need for the project, planned for the Great Pee Dee River. He said he favors nuclear power for meeting future electricity needs in the state. He said, “Everyone involved agrees that building this coal-fired plant is a short-term solution to bridge the gap between now and the time more nuclear capacity comes online.” Sanford also cited Obama administration desires to increased controls on mercury and carbon dioxide emissions, claiming the potential new rules could quadruple the cost of the coal-fired plant.

For his part, Edwards said, “The environmental lobbyists were wrong 20 or 30 years ago when they stopped nuclear. And they are wrong today” when the seek to stop coal. Edwards said he was unconvinced about claims of manmade climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. He added, “I’ve been an environmentalist all my life. But the worst environment I can think of is cold, hungry, out of work and in the dark.”

Edwards, who burst onto the South Carolina political scene as an unknown in the 1970s, had a rocky year at the helm of DOE, in part because of his unusual candor. He was open, opinionated, and willing to share his views with reporters (including this one, who came to like him a lot, while often disagreeing with him). When the White House fired him a year later (technically, he resigned to become the president of the Medical University of South Carolina), he famously said, “I can’t wait to get my hands back in spit.” He supported Mitt Romney for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Sanford supported the nomination of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee.

Santee Cooper, based in Moncks Corner, is a statewide public power and water system that serves some 800,000 customers in all 46 South Carolina counties. Created in the 1930s by the late Strom Thurmond, then the Democratic governor of the state and fashioned after the Roosevelt Administration’s Tennessee Valley Authority, Santee Cooper has long been a dominant force in utility politics in the state.

The state’s most significant investor-owned utility is SCE&G (nee South Carolina Electric & Gas), a Scana Corp. subsidiary.

SCE&G, which has considerable nuclear generation, and Santee Cooper are collaborating on a planned two-unit 2,000-MW nuclear project, using the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design, to be sited in Fairfield County. The state public service commission this week approved construction work in progress financing for SCE&G’s portion the plant, which would kick in if it gets approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and private-sector financing. Santee Cooper is not regulated by the SCPSC.