With Help of Stimulus, FutureGen 'Clean Coal' Plant May Be Revived

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

Deep inside the economic stimulus package is a $1 billion prize that, in five short words, shows the benefits of being in power in Washington.

The funding, for "fossil energy research and development," is likely to go to a power plant in a small Illinois town, a project whose longtime backers include a group of powerful lawmakers from the state, among them President Obama.

They were unable to prevent the "clean coal" research project known as FutureGen from being abruptly killed last year by the Bush administration, which had created it and promoted it across the world as an environmentally sound way to produce power.

But now those same Illinois legislators -- including Rahm Emanuel, now White House chief of staff, and Ray LaHood, now transportation secretary -- control the White House and hold key leadership positions in Washington, and FutureGen is on the verge of resurrection.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said yesterday that he would support the plant with "some modifications."

"I have to say, there are many, many good things about it," Chu said after testifying before a Senate committee.

If FutureGen lived up to its promises, it would revolutionize the use of coal. On what is now 400 acres of cornfields in Mattoon, Ill., backers plan to build a commercial-size power plant that would produce 275 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 150,000 homes. Instead of releasing the resulting carbon dioxide emissions into the air as pollution, however, the plant would pump them into deep geologic formations thousands of feet below Earth's surface.

The project's goal is to test and develop affordable technology, on a commercial scale, that can remove 90 percent of emissions produced by coal plants. Chu said he thinks that the plant -- which would be built with a group of private coal and utility companies known as the FutureGen Alliance -- will move forward with some changes that have not yet been determined and will become a part of larger "portfolio" of research plants developed with other countries.

The FutureGen plant is expected to create jobs, and backers are currently pushing it as a stimulus project that could employ as many as 11,000 workers. The alliance must compete for the stimulus funds, but Chu's support adds significant momentum to the effort.

FutureGen's destiny is being decided as the debate over clean coal technology takes center stage in Washington, drawing big money in lobbying fees and campaign contributions. More than $20 million has been spent to hire lobbying firms that have petitioned members of Congress on FutureGen and other clean coal issues, according to a Washington Post analysis. And employees of the energy companies in the FutureGen Alliance have donated $3 million to congressional and presidential candidates.

The battle over FutureGen accelerated about a year ago when the Bush administration blocked the project hours after Mattoon was chosen over two towns in President George W. Bush's home state of Texas. The Illinois delegation responded with a bitter, bare-knuckle fight to save the plant. Without any assurance that their efforts would pay off, backers in Illinois spent tens of millions of dollars to buy land and have the project "shovel ready" -- before there was ever talk of a stimulus bill.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D), who led the Illinois delegation's efforts, worked the system, blocking some Bush administration appointments and holding hearings to publicly vilify the officials who stood in his way.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company