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With Help of Stimulus, FutureGen 'Clean Coal' Plant May Be Revived
The reasons behind the Bush administration's decision to kill the plant are the subject of two year-long probes -- one by the Government Accountability Office and another by a congressional committee -- that will be released this month.
Internal department e-mails and memos show that Bodman directed his staff to develop an alternative plan, exploring whether to scrap the large plant and replace it with five or six smaller plants to test pieces of the same technology. The e-mails show that staff members were skeptical of the new plan, dubbed "FutureGen Plan B," which would call on the industry to pay a higher share of the cost.
"New money riding in to save the day seems unlikely," said one e-mail. Staff members described the new plan as unworkable and came up with their own name for it -- "the Frankenstein."
Incensed by what he viewed as duplicity on the part of the Bush administration, Durbin began making frequent calls to Bodman's office, records show, and quickly organized a campaign to keep the plant alive. He aligned 19 other members of Congress to join him in late December 2007, first by signing a protest letter to Bodman, then by gathering fellow lawmakers to confront the energy secretary.
The meeting in Durbin's office quickly became heated, as Bodman told lawmakers for the first time that the plant in Mattoon was dead.
"This is a meeting unlike any meeting I've been a part of. Members of Congress are literally screaming and waving their fists at the secretary," said someone in attendance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing debate over FutureGen.
"We won this competition fair and square," Durbin said. "I told Bodman point-blank, 'We are going to keep this alive for the next president.' "
The next day, Bodman went public with his decision to replace the FutureGen project with multiple smaller plants. Obama and the rest of the Illinois delegation wrote to Bush, charging that the secretary had "misled us and the people of Illinois, creating false hope in a FutureGen project which he had no intention of funding or supporting."
The group organized three congressional hearings in the spring, challenging Bodman to explain his decision. In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to protect $134 million in funding for FutureGen in Mattoon, prohibiting the Energy Department from spending it on anything else.
Still, Bodman moved forward with Plan B, hoping to set the new plan in motion before the next administration was in place. But just four sites submitted proposals; two did not qualify and two others were incomplete, according to lawmakers and former department staffers.
Last week, Durbin and the delegation persuaded Congress to lift a freeze on $73 million of the money set aside in July, directing Chu to use it for the project if it is revived. The same day, the delegation sent Chu a letter, arguing that the plant in Mattoon should get the stimulus money because it is "five years ahead of any comparable project. . . . We cannot further delay on this promising technology."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.