In FutureGen We Trust: While Washington Procrastinates On Global Warming, a Rural Illinois Town Casts its Lot With Clean Coal

A tour of Mattoon – a central Illinois town with around 18,000 people – can be kind of underwhelming. The town is off the interstate and surrounded by cornfields. There are a few bars, a 24-hour grocery store with the banner “Bob Evans sausage $1.79-a-pound,” a “feed-and-seed” store, and, for the Second Amendment enthusiast, “Freedom Firearms.” There’s a community college – Lakeland – as well as a downsizing General Electric plant. When I asked Preston Owens, the city attorney, about local attractions, he answered, “Well, it’s just another Midwestern town.”

Such modesty, though, disguises Mattoon’s ambition to be theinternational testing ground for clean coal technology. The town will almost assuredly land FutureGen, an alliance of coal companies created to build the first commercial-scale “clean coal” power plant — a plant that does not emit the carbon dioxide that triggers global warming. With coal used for half of America’s electricity and one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions, FutureGen will demonstrate that what coal critics call “the dirty rock” can remain part of America’s, and the world’s, long-term energy supply. At least that’s the idea.

George W. Bush planted the seeds for FutureGen in 2003, launching a national competition for a site– and then hastily withdrawing funding. Nudged by his former colleagues in the Illinois congressional delegation, Barack Obama brought back FutureGen after he was elected president. At this point, Mattoon has won FutureGen, lost it, and probably won it again. Throughout the process, the town’s leadership has demonstrated unwavering enthusiasm for hosting the clean coal experiment. “There was a national competition for FutureGen,” enthuses Lakeland Community College President Scott Lesnink. “And the winner was Matoon, Illinois! That gave us great confidence.”

Mattoon’s persistence sharply contrasts with a federal government that continues to avoid regulating carbon. With an energy bill stalled in the Senate and international climate talks looming, FutureGen is one of America’s few significant investments that acknowledges the existential problem of global warming.

The Past and Present of FutureGen

In June, Energy Department Secretary Steven Chu announced that a planned Future Gen clean coal plant on the outskirts of Mattoon had passed its environmental viability test. Declaring that the project “demonstrates the Administration’s commitment to developing clean energy technologies, creating jobs, and reducing emissions of greenhouses gases,” Chu indicated that FutureGen will receive $1 billion in stimulus bill grant money for carbon capture and sequestration research.  FutureGen, in turn, has promised that the project will be ready by 2015 and produce 600-700 construction jobs and about 100 jobs for people who will operate the plant.

The project is not quite a done deal – FutureGen still must submit a fundraising plan to DOE to show it can meet the project’s overall cost estimate of $2.4 billion. The non-federal money will likely come from members of the coal company alliance, which includes American coal giants like St. Louis-based Peabody Energy (the world’s largest private coal company) as well as coal behemoths from Great Britain, China and Australia. Illinois taxpayers might also chip in, but experts in the region tracking the issue are confident there will not be a controversy over the funding  “We think it will go forward,” says Henry Henderson, Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When it came to dealing with global warming in the Bush administration, FutureGen was pretty much the only game in town. The White House had no interest in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, pushing Congress to enact a cap on carbon, or getting the Environmental Protection Agency to take action. Indeed, the Bush White House actively discouraged EPA scientists from using the Clean Air Act to cap carbon emissions. In a climate where there was no government support for CO2 reduction, a project like FutureGen had little running room without a guarantee of federal money. The House investigations subcommittee on science and technology (chaired by North Carolina Democrat Brad Miller) said as much in March 2009:  “Without a carbon regulation structure in place,” a committee report concluded, “[i]t is almost impossible to expect power generators and utilities to take on this ‘public benefit’ task without expecting a return on investment.”Assuming FutureGen goes forward, it would mark the second major Energy Dept. shift on the project in less than two years. The saga began in 2003 when Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham declared his intention to transform coal from an “environmentally challenging energy resource to an environmentally benign one.” Abraham proposed to do this with federal subsidies to  a group of coal companies – what  was to become FutureGen – to the tune of $1 billion over 10 years. The alliance would make carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, work on a commercial scale.  CCS captures the CO2 in coal before it is emitted into smokestacks into the air. The captured CO2 is then transferred through a pipeline underground where it is stored – forever. After thousands of years CO2 would eventually turn into limestone or like minerals. CCS has worked on a small scale with oil and gas, but it has never been used to capture the carbon from literally tons of coal.

It appeared FutureGen had such a guarantee: the plan envisioned by the Abraham-led Energy Dept. was for the alliance to select a site for the first-ever clean-coal plant, with taxpayers footing three-quarters of the cost.  Enter Mattoon. The state of Illinois suggested to the city in March 2006 that it submit a blueprint for FutureGen. Mattoon became one of 22 sites to submit a proposal, but its application stood out. The town made geological sense because the CO2 could be stored beneath the sandstone-filled Mt. Simon reservoir where the above-storage layering is presumed thick enough that the CO2 will not escape into the air and instead turn into sandstone.

Politically, there was both strong local and state support. Coles Together – the economic development organization of Coles County, which includes Mattoon – secured all the options for 440 acres of surface and sub-surface rights for the potential site location. And the entire Illinois Congressional delegation, including liberal Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Mattoon’s conservative Republican Rep. Tim Johnson lobbied for the project. “Dick Durbin and Tim Johnson are about as far apart as two people can be politically,” says David Wortman, Matoon’s public works director, who was a key player in the city’s bid. “And they would sit side-by-side at meetings at our high school explaining the benefits of clean coal.”

In December 2007, FutureGen announced it had selected Mattoon.  It might have been reason for celebration, but at that time the new Bush Administration Energy Secretary, Samuel Bodman, was working to scale back the project. Publicly, things appeared to be moving forward – President Bush even said in his January 2008 State of the Union speech: “Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing emissions.” But ten days after the State of the Union, Bodman told the Illinois representatives that FutureGen, as currently conceived, had been killed. DOE found fault with the project’s uncertain long-term cost, and, ironically, gave an argument often used by clean coal’s environmental critics: Why would the coal industry have self-interest in carbon sequestration in the absence of any national carbon policy or global carbon cap?  “Moving forward with CCS at this time,” read a spring 2008 DOE report, “ absent legislation or other incentives, would be imprudent.”

The Illinois delegation was incensed, with both Democrats and Republicans saying it was “cruel,” “unfair” and evidence of “incompetent management.” Matters were not helped when DOE Undersecretary Bud Albright said the administration was not interested in “building Disneyland in some swamp in Illinois.”

Mattoon regrouped, though, with Coles Together chipping in $3 million so Future Gen could buy – for $6.5 million – the 440-acre plot where it envisioned the coal plant. The town also cast its lot in the presidential campaign of then-Illinois Sen. Obama. “This is a conservative area,” says Wortman of city hall. “Every surrounding county voted for John McCain – Coles County went for Obama.” Wortman suspected this was because of FutureGen.  It paid off – Obama used the stimulus bill to restore funding. “Did Obama close the deal?” says an energy official at the Illinois Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I suppose in some sense he did – but the deal had already been done and Bush welshed.”

When Chu announced his intention to revive FutureGen, Illinois politicians were ecstatic. “In my time in Congress,” said Durbin – who has spent 26 years in Congress, “I can’t recall a project that has greater scientific and practical significance than FutureGen.”

Copenhagen, Washington and Mattoon

Mattoon’s political and economic leadership see the project as a chance to transform itself. “There will be several hundred construction jobs,” says Angela Griffin, president of Coles Together. “But FutureGen is significant for a variety of other reasons: there is a potential after the plant is built for research and development companies to locate here and we feel that retail and service development will come with it.” City attorney Preston Owens points to Mattoon’s current nine percent unemployment rate – not as bad as the state or national jobless level, but pretty grim considering Mattoon barely felt any ripples from the housing bust. “We hope FutureGen brings jobs and recognition,” Owens says.

Local residents interviewed along a two-block stretch of downtown Mattoon generally agreed – even if they were uncertain what was meant by “clean coal.”  “I’m hoping it will come because it will boost the local economy in the area,” says Mickey Wamsley, a paraprofessional at Mattoon schools. “A lot of the industrial sector has left – the General Electric plant has recently laid some people off.”  “I think it will be good for the community,” says Julie Grove, a case manager at Coles County Mental Health Center. “I’m a little unclear on the particulars of clean coal but I think there is information on the Mattoon Chamber of Commerce Web site.”

However, FutureGen faces the same problem it did in the Bush administration – it’s still the only game in town.  John Harwood of theNew York Times reported Nov. 9 that “Congress is unlikely, this year or next, to establish the ‘cap and trade’ system for curbing carbon emissions,” meaning that FutureGen is emerging in an unregulated landscape with no federal policy to support it.

The Obama administration did announce last month that it has authorized EPA to propose a to regulate carbon from power plants – but this was hardly an incitement to action. EPA regulation of power plants would not happen until 2011 at the earliest – and many argue that regulation would result in a slew of industry lawsuits and political headaches for Obama. “There will be great hue and cry about the economy-destroying burden that command-and-control regulations impose on American business,” blogged David Roberts, an environmental writer at Grist Web site. “Responsibility for EPA regulations will fall entirely on Barack Obama and his administration, not on Congress—which is probably how Congress prefers it.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. will attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December without a global warming plan. All eyes there will be on the U.S. and China – countries that emit the most CO2 (much of it from coal power plants). Yet the U.S.  and China have so far discussed specific clean energy projects– like carbon sequestration and wind power — not an overall energy plan.

The uncertain situation creates two shaky scenarios for FutureGen. If no government action is taken on global warming, the process of carbon capture and sequestration will be far too expensive to be economically competitive. Take the example of the New Haven, West Virginia coal plant run by American Electric Power, which is trying to capture and store less than two percent of the plant’s annual C02 emissions. To do this, the plant will use between 15-30 percent of its overall energy output and will spend $73 million – half the cost of the factory. FutureGen, meanwhile, aims to start off by capturing not two percent but 60 percent of its CO2 emissions in 2015 and 90 percent by 2020.  FutureGen has told both Washington and the Illinois state government that it cannot estimate the project’s cost due to the uncertain price of electricity and the unprecedented nature of the project.  The best total cost estimate right now is the $2.4 billion announced by FutureGen and DOE.  “An absolutely staggering amount of money will be required to make clean coal work on a commercially viable scale,” argues Matt Leonard, a campaign director with Greenpeace.

Second, even if investment in clean coal starts now, it could be squeezed out by other priorities if and when the U.S. finally embraces CO2 reduction as a national goal.  “Even the most optimistic timescale says that CCS will not be ready to be commercially deployed until 2020,” says Leonard. “But most climate scientists say carbon emissions need to decline after 2015.”  Leonard believes that “federal subsidies and tax incentives need to go renewable sources like solar energies.” If Leonard is right, it would be better for Washington (and Mattoon) to cut its losses on FutureGen now, not after, say, “The Energy Security and Carbon Regulation Act of 2013.”

The Future of FutureGen

Most climate scientists and environmental policy experts do concede that there are less expensive clean energy alternatives than clean coal. However, the consensus is that it’s a political and economic pipe dream to think coal can go from being the source of 50 percent of America’s energy to zero percent.  “There is no sensible way U.S. policy can ignore coal power,” says Robert Socolow, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Princeton University and expert on carbon sequestration technology. “The world is in urgent need of a field experience where CO2 is captured from coal plants and disposed of deep on the earth. Future Gen is a promising project, which will establish facts on the ground.” Edward Rubin, an environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon, says “there is a need to demonstrate CCS at a commercial plant.  We cannot wait for deliberations on a national energy policy.”

Even some environmental advocates see clean coal as part of a better energy future. “It is not an either-or situation,” says Henderson, the Midwest director of NRDC. “We need to fund renewable energy but also try to make CCS commercially viable. Why focus on coal? Because coal is a global reality and it’s a utopian fantasy to think that we don’t have to deal with coal. Will CCS be our primary energy source? No, but this is part of a transition to a cleaner energy economy.”  Henderson calls opposition to FutureGen a classic example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. With a national plan on energy stalled, many environmentalists see the push for clean coal – notwithstanding its costs and subsidies to the coal industry – as preferable to the status quo.

Right now, the FutureGen site is currently endless corn fields briefly interrupted by two abandoned houses. “We have had some problems lately with youth going to the homes to drink,” says city attorney Owens. But if DOE approves FutureGen cost estimates, construction could begin as early as January on the plant. The issue with the site then will be whether CCS actually works. If it does, it will make an otherwise unremarkable Midwestern town look prescient in a country still lacking direction on confronting apocalyptic global warming. “It’s impossible for us to know what will take place,” says Wortman. “But this could be something with a lot of positive possibilities – we could affect the way the United States and the world use energy.”

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