Clean coal plans go up in smoke

Just days after President Bush promised to “fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions” his Department of Energy (DOE) has shot down America’s flagship clean-coal project. The privately run experimental plant, known as FutureGen, was to have been built in Mattoon, a nowheresville town set among the cornfields of Illinois; in theory, the facility would have developed and demonstrated an innovative near-zero emission technology known as CCS, which converts coal into clean-burning hydrogen and easily stored carbon dioxide.

But this week - barely a month after the site for the new plant was announced - the DOE said it was pulling funds from the project amid spiraling costs. That’s somewhat disingenuous: The project’s price-tag had certainly spiraled, from $950 million to almost $1.8 billion, but the overspend was to be paid by FutureGen’s industry backers. The DOE’s contribution, in fact, had been capped at $800 million, the amount the department had originally pledged.

The announcement met with a mixed response from greens; after all, FutureGen was certainly far from perfect. Mismanagement, federal interference and political dilly-dallying had led to endless delays, prompting industry insiders to nickname the project “NeverGen”. There were concerns, too, that a single plant wouldn’t provide a sufficient test of the technology’s potential - and that, in any case, the results would come too late to make a difference to climate change.

But for all FutureGen’s flaws, there’s no real sign that the DOE has anything better up its sleeve. The department says it will put new funds into other carbon-capture projects across the country, but critics say the department is effectively starting from scratch. Given that it took a decade for FutureGen to make it out of the planning and approval stage, it’s hard to have much confidence that the DOE’s do-over will deliver the goods.

More troubling, in any case, is the fact that in principle FutureGen was a step in the right direction. Coal - clean or otherwise - isn’t the answer to our climate problems; but finding an alternative to fossil fuels will be a lengthy process. In the meantime, we need to improve the energy sources we’re already using - and CCS had the potential to be a useful bridge technology. If Bush is really so convinced that technology alone can solve climate change, he ought to be embracing projects like FutureGen - not pulling the plug on them.

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You have hit the nail on the head. The DOE's new "plan" will cost the taxpayers a lot more than FutureGen and actually adds years to the schedule (if they have one). FutureGen has come a long way since its inception and was about to enter into the design phase with the EIS behind them. Starting over with several sites and big energy companies with individual axes to grind calling the shots will be a monumental task with no results until late into the next decade, if then. President Bush's decision to scrap FutureGen is strictly political (Texas style) and shows a unmistakeable lack of commitment to solving climate change through clean coal technology. FutureGen was not perfect, no project that size ever is, but it was a rare chance to prove CCS can be done safely and cleanly and would provide the coal industry with an R&D facility to test and improve the process. What a loss.

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