By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The Bush administration's decision to halt production of an experimental power plant that would capture and store carbon dioxide emissions underground may have set back "clean coal" technology in the United States by as much as a decade, according to a congressional report released at a hearing yesterday.
Also, cost estimates used as justification for killing the commercial-scale project known as FutureGen were grossly exaggerated because Energy Department officials did not account for inflation, according to a Government Accountability Office report, also released yesterday.
The two reports, commissioned by the House Committee on Science and Technology, represent the latest efforts by the Illinois congressional delegation to revive the plant, which would be built in the small Illinois town of Mattoon. President Obama took part in the delegation's efforts when he was in the Senate.
The Bush administration killed plans to build the plant in December 2007, just hours after Mattoon was chosen over two sites in Texas, triggering allegations that the move was political.
"We have lost time, but we now have an administration that supports developing this technology," said Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), who led yesterday's hearing. "We have a project that I think will now get back on track and move forward."
The ultimate cost of the plant continues to be a matter of debate. Energy Secretary Steven Chu reasserted his desire yesterday to build the plant but cautioned that price estimates now range as high as $2.3 billion and that he would like to bring down the cost. He plans to meet soon with the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, private companies involved with the project, to determine how best to move forward. The alliance hopes to compete for $1 billion set aside in the economic stimulus package for "fossil energy research and development" projects.
The research project was announced in 2003 by President George W. Bush, who promoted it as the centerpiece of his efforts to deal with climate change. After spending $175 million on the plant, it was killed by the administration, which cited rising cost estimates and an arrangement that had the government paying two-thirds of the price. Administration officials denied that it was killed for political reasons.
The GAO report disputed the Bush administration's contention that the costs had nearly doubled, from $1 billion to $1.8 billion, saying the figure would be $1.3 billion if adjusted for inflation.
Mark Gaffigan, director of Natural Resources and Environment at the GAO, said Congress will need to mandate reductions in carbon dioxide emissions if it wants to get private industry to pay for FutureGen and similar research projects. "FutureGen is high-risk," he said. "They aren't going to pursue things until it is in their best interest."
Victor K. Der, acting assistant secretary for the Energy Department's Office of Fossil Energy, said the technology needs to be tested at a commercial scale. He also said FutureGen is the only project of its kind close to the construction phase, calling it "near shovel-ready."