US lawmakers probe DOE decisions on flagship clean coal programme

The US Department of Energy has announced that it has restructured and reinstated FutureGen, its flagship clean coal research programme, with a focus on the challenges associated with control of the emissions of carbon and six other pollutants.   

On 24 June, the department said it plans to invest in several commercial-scale Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plants or other clean coal-based power generation technology using carbon capture and storage techniques.   

The DOE came under heavy fire in January, after it suddenly announced that the soaring costs of the project meant it would largely pull out of FutureGen, which has been the centrepiece of the Bush administration’s efforts to develop clean coal technologies since 2003. 

On 15 June, the department formally notified the FutureGen Alliance - a 13-member consortium that was due to build the first near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant in Mattoon, Illinois - that it had reversed a decision to cover three-quarters of the project’s costs. The DOE’s January annoucement to quit the project had pitched it into a row with Illinois lawmakers - including presidential hopeful Barack Obama. 

The decision to re-launch the project has attracted the censure of House of Representatives’ Science and Technology Committee. The committee has been attempting to gain access to DOE documents relating to the decision since 2 April. 

’The department is rushing forward with their plan for a restructured FutureGen before they have even provided reasonable answers to our questions,’ said Democrat Bart Gordon, the committee’s chairman. 

"The department is rushing forward with their plan for a restructured FutureGen before they have even provided reasonable answers to our questions" - Bart Gordon

The House committee was set to subpoena the department for access to the FutureGen documents, but reversed course at a meeting on 26 June after the White House Counsel, who advises the president on legal matters, agreed to turn over the requested materials within days. 

Before the meeting, committee staff members were allowed to review the documents in question, which had been withheld because the White House claimed they were privileged. 

’We have not had adequate answers on FutureGen decisions and the only way to get them is from documents held by the department. I am pleased that the White House will provide the documents without a subpoena,’ said Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat who chairs the committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee. ’If things fall apart - and I hope they don’t - we will be right back here in July.’ 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA