The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Obama administration is cutting funds for a major ‘clean coal’ project

In this Oct. 21, 2013 photo, work continues at the gasifier at the Mississippi Power’s Kemper County energy facility in central Mississippi near DeKalb. Along with the FutureGen 2.0 project in Illinois, which will now lose its federal funding, the Kemper facility is designed to capture and store carbon dioxide. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

It was a glittering gem for “Clean Coal” proponents — a coal plant that, advocates said, would have “near-zero emissions” thanks to a plan to capture carbon dioxide and inject it deep beneath the ground. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club scoffed, calling it a “boondoggle” and proceeding to sue.

And now, the Department of Energy, which had planned to fund the FutureGen 2.0 project to the tune of $1 billion in stimulus funds and expended just over $200 million since 2010, will pull the plug, thanks to delays that had made the project unable to hit deadlines before it ran out of federal funding.

“In order to best protect taxpayer interests, the Department of Energy has initiated a structured closeout of federal support for the project that will help maximize the value of investments to date while minimizing ongoing risks and further costs,” said Department of Energy spokesman Bill Gibbons.

This does not mean an abandonment of “Clean Coal” research or development. Gibbons noted that the department had “acquired valuable information” from the project that “will continue to benefit our broad clean coal portfolio.” During the Obama years, the DOE’s “Clean Coal” commitments total $6 billion.

But critics like the Sierra Club hailed the move, noting that “with today’s announcement, $1 billion in federal funding and hundreds of thousands of dollars in Illinois ratepayer financing can be freed up for investment in clean energy.”

The FutureGen 2.0 project was a partnership between the Department of Energy and a coal industry coalition, the FutureGen Industrial Alliance.

“This is a huge disappointment for both Central Illinois and supporters of clean coal technology,” said Illinois Democratic senator and longtime FutureGen supporter Dick Durbin in a statement.

FutureGen 2.0 consisted of upgrading an older coal plant located along the Illinois river in the center of the state, and equipping it with so-called “oxy-combustion” technology to aid in the capture of carbon dioxide after burning by separating it from other byproducts. These would then be piped away to be stored underground 30 miles away. The DOE had previously called it a “groundbreaking project” that would “help pave the way for other cleaner and more sustainable advanced coal-burning power plants.”

Environmental groups have been assailing so-called “Clean Coal” since the Bush administration, when a prior version of the FutureGen project also floundered.

“It makes no sense to pull the plug on $1 billion committed to America’s signature near-zero emissions power project at such a critical time for these investments in technology,” said Peabody Energy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gregory H. Boyce in a statement. Peabody is a member of the FutureGen Industrial Alliance.

Carbon capture and storage projects have run into a number of  difficulties, but with coal still a central component to the world energy mix, interest remains high, especially abroad.