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Even if you’ve followed the ballooning costs of the clean coal project FutureGen over the past few years, the news out this week that the Bush Administration has basically cut its support for the project is still a shocker. The DOE issued a press release saying the project had been “restructured” but the Wall Street Journal gives it the space it deserves, calling it “a major policy reversal,” that could “kill the project by shifting most of the cost to an industry consortium.”
The move is a blow to coal producers and coal-burning utilities that wanted to prove the technology, the WSJ notes, but more than anything it is a major upset for the viability of clean coal technology. The FutureGen project was the great green hope of the coal industry — a proof-of-concept project that, had it been successful, could have facilitated the use of private funds for the further development and construction of clean coal plants. Now, clean coal is very much back in limbo, with no proof the technology is anywhere near viable and no sure timetable to prove that it is.
This policy shift follows right on the heels of President Bush’s last State of the Union Address. His Energy Secretary’s deep-sixing of FutureGen does not seem to be in line with his recently restated agenda to “fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions.”
Meanwhile, all of presidential hopefuls say they will pursue clean coal research, but with the derailment of FutureGen it is extremely unlikely that clean coal will become a reality during the next administration. In fact, it might not even happen by the end of three presidential terms. James Hansen, one of the world’s best-known global warming researchers and a recent vocal advocate of proposed coal plants, has said that clean coal technology is at least a decade away:
It is really too bad that the DOE has taken so long to get its demonstration plant going. They said in 2001, they would make this FutureGen, and its taken them several years just to decide where to do it. It looks like it will take several more years. So the practical matter is, given where we are right now, it [clean coal in full-scale operation] could still be a decade away.
America needs its cheap energy, and cleaning up dirty coal seemed like a great way to keep the lights on while using American coal. On the global scale, American clean coal technology had the potential to be a valuable export as China, who is bringing online roughly one coal-fired power plant every week, tries to clean up its air. Now it falls to startups like GreatPoint Energy to prove to skeptical environmentalists and increasingly desperate coal magnates that the potentially oxymoronic pipe dream of “clean coal” can come true.
This post was co-written by Craig Rubens.