Political row erupts after DOE decides to pull out of flagship clean coal plant
The US Department of Energy (DOE) has become embroiled in a row with Illinois lawmakers - including presidential hopeful Barack Obama - over its decision to largely pull out of funding FutureGen, the flagship clean coal plant.
The department was to cover three-quarters of the project’s costs. But on 30 January - just two months after an announcement that the cutting-edge plant would built in Mattoon, Illinois - DOE said it would only cover the carbon capture and storage component of the plant and spread most of the money formerly earmarked for FutureGen among several different clean coal projects.
DOE blames the escalating costs of the project for its decision. According to the department, the estimated cost of FutureGen has nearly doubled over the last five years to $1.8 billion (?0.9 billion).
But that is denied by the FutureGen Alliance - a consortium of 13 international power companies responsible for designing, building and operating the facility.
Now, 10 lawmakers from Illinois, including Senator Obama, are suggesting that the department’s sudden change of heart is politically motivated.
’Many have argued that this abrupt about face by Secretary [of Energy] Bodman was the direct result of the FutureGen Alliance choosing Mattoon, Illinois as the site, over Texas applicants,’ the politicians wrote in a recent letter to President Bush. ’While we’d like not to believe this theory, there is no other plausible explanation.’
Disneyland in Illinois?
The political tension reached boiling point on 5 February when Illinois’ Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and its Republican congressman Tim Johnson sent a letter to Bodman demanding an apology for recent disparaging remarks made about the their state by C.H. ’Bud’ Albright, DOE’s under secretary of energy.
During a recent teleconference with FutureGen project stakeholders, Albright reportedly said his department is not interested in ’building Disneyland in some swamp in Illinois’.
For its part, DOE refutes any wrongdoing. Department spokeswoman Julie Ruggiero told Chemistry World that allegations of political angling are ’ludicrous’. She said the department had wanted to hold discussions with the FutureGen Alliance on where the plant should be sited, but the alliance had ’unilaterally selected’ Mattoon.
’We are being more efficient with our resources,’ said Ruggiero. ’Instead of focusing on a single demonstration plant we can now provide and equip a CCS component on IGCC [integrated gasification combined cycle] plants.’
The exact cost of the restructured programme will become clearer after 3 March, when industry responds to a DOE notice seeking input on the expenses and feasibility associated with building clean coal facilities that achieve the goals of FutureGen.
Meanwhile, the FutureGen Alliance and Illinois lawmakers remain committed to the Mattoon site and hope to gain the White House’s support. Help, however, does not appear to be on the horizon - despite President George Bush’s avowed support for clean coal research and carbon capture technology.
When Bush’s science adviser, John Marburger, was asked about the situation at a 4 February briefing, he immediately deferred to Bodman, who was not present.
’DOE felt that the financial structure that determined that sharing of expenses between the federal government and the private sector was defective and that the federal government was at risk,’ Marburger said. ’They felt that the FutureGen programme had to be restructured, and unfortunately, restructuring means not continuing the contract.’
The Bush administration does endorse the research, development, and demonstration of advanced clean-coal technology, he said, as evidenced by its fiscal year 2009 budget proposal.
The funding request, released on 4 February, proposes a 25 per cent increase to the DOE’s budget for research in clean coal technology and demonstration of carbon capture and storage for coal-fired power plants, bringing the total to nearly $650 million.
Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA