Century Aluminum finds itself in a precarious position after a court hearing on Friday in which the presiding judge affirmed that Santee Cooper is exempt from antitrust laws.
The affirmation was made by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel in the course of a hearing relating to an antitrust lawsuit brought by Century in an attempt to win the right to buy the entirety of its electricity needed to power its Mount Holly smelter on the open market.
Although Judge Gergel did not issue an order dismissing the antitrust suit, he did make it clear that sufficient grounds existed to do so.
“The intention was to give them a monopoly,” he said in reference to the state legislature’s intentions when passing the antitrust statutes in 1930. “We expect this entity to act in an anti-competitive way. That’s what a monopoly does.”
Such reasoning all but destroys Century’s case against Santee Cooper, the entity from whom Century is obliged to purchase one-fourth of its total energy requirements for the smelter. Century’s rationale is that Santee Cooper is illegally forcing Century to purchase from them by saying they will not transfer the remaining three-fourths of the electricity purchased by a third party without it.
However, Gergel told the parties that Santee Cooper was well within its legal rights to compel Century to purchase the entirety of its electrical power from Santee if it so desired.
“You’re using their effort to accommodate you as a sword against them to challenge their immunity” said Gurgel of Century’s antitrust arguments.
“It might be that your smelter plant will go out of business,” Gergel continued. “I understand you’re not happy with their monopoly, but that’s the law,” he said. “The law allows for monopolies in certain circumstances.”
Century’s CEO Mike Bless has gone on record on many occasions stating that the operation of the smelter hinges on obtaining a more favorable power deal. The smelter, which consumes 400 mW at full production, slashed capacity (and workforce) by half in 2015, saying that the prices charged by Santee Cooper were too high to justify operating at full capacity.