The Demise of FutureGen

Saturday, February 16, 2008

PRESIDENT BUSH announced in 2004 and then continually promoted a public-private venture he hoped would usher in an era of clean coal and be a cornerstone of U.S. efforts to address global warming. The FutureGen plant would have created electricity by stripping coal of harmful carbon dioxide and pumping the gas underground. The result would be power generation with zero greenhouse gas emissions. In December, Mattoon, Ill., was selected as the site for the coal plant. And then, on Jan. 30, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman pulled the plug.

Mr. Bodman's reason for ending the project -- cost overruns -- has been greeted with derision and disbelief, particularly by members of the Illinois congressional delegation. Who can blame them? Just when you start to believe Mr. Bush might be serious about addressing climate change, a decision is made that reminds you of the chasm between his words and his deeds. But in the case of FutureGen, the administration might be right.

The initial estimate for FutureGen, which teamed the Energy Department with 13 utilities and coal companies, was pegged at $1 billion. Yet skyrocketing prices for steel, concrete and other materials nearly doubled the cost of the project. The private partners were going to share in the financing. But after five years of cheerleading by the president and the Energy Department, Mr. Bodman opted to forgo funding for one megaproject in favor of assisting several groups across the country that are already working with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. This approach is backed by a noteworthy 2007 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that called for three "at-scale CCS projects" in this country and 10 worldwide. More important, because there is a lot of development activity in this country and abroad, the report urged, "It is critical that the government RD&D [research, development and demonstration] program not fall into the trap of picking a technology 'winner.' "

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who is calling on Mr. Bush to review the FutureGen decision, is upset with the way the administration handled the matter. He bemoans all the hoops that four communities in Illinois and Texas jumped through, and the money they spent, to be considered as the site for the clean-coal plant, which was billed as essential to the U.S. response to climate change. But this experience also highlights something that isn't much discussed and needs to be: There is no cheap and easy way to solve the menace of global warming. The solutions are varied and prohibitively expensive (right now), and they will take years, if not decades, to prove they can work on a commercial scale.

The United States, China and India, among the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters, sit on huge reserves of coal that will be used to feed their economies' growing energy demands. Finding ways to do that without adding to the buildup of greenhouse gases and sharing that technology widely is imperative. As noble as FutureGen was, putting so much hope in just one project was not the way to go about it.

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