ST. LOUIS – The Energy Department unveiled its blueprint Wednesday for spending up to $1.3 billion on multiple clean-coal power plants that would capture carbon emissions and permanently store them underground.
The announcement, launching two weeks of public comment over the revised plan for the project known as FutureGen, came despite pledges by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to scuttle the effort. The Democrat stands convinced a town in his home state of Illinois deserved the project — all of it.
FutureGen’s developers — an alliance of a dozen big power and coal companies — tapped Mattoon, Ill., as the site in December. But the Energy Department quickly pulled the plug, citing costs that had ballooned to $1.8 billion, nearly double the original price tag.
The department considers it smarter to spread the taxpayer money around to several smaller projects throughout the U.S. On Wednesday, Bud Albright, an undersecretary for the department, said Mattoon is out of the picture unless a developer wants to build a power plant there, then apply to partner with the Energy Department.
“The direction we’re going — let me make absolutely clear if there’s any question — we’re fully committed to. We think it’s a better direction,” he told reporters during a conference call.
“It’s a faster way to go” because it instantly commercializes the technology instead of merely experimenting with it at a research site in Mattoon, Albright said.
Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for the FutureGen Alliance that picked Mattoon over three other finalists, countered that the fight for Mattoon was anything but over.
Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, has threatened to block White House appointments to the Energy Department while looking for a way to pass legislation to keep the project afloat until the next president takes office in January.
Durbin said Wednesday evening that the new plan was unworkable and cannot be taken seriously.
“They wouldn’t even receive applications from the new sites until four weeks before the current administration ends,” he said in a telephone interview. “It isn’t a serious plan — it’s merely a mask for their embarrassment.”
“Our goal is to keep the location in Mattoon until this administration packs and leaves town,” said Durbin, noting that authorities have invested five years of study, as well as federal and state funds, in the Mattoon site.
FutureGen will be debated Thursday, when Durbin is expected to take part in a discussion of the project with the Senate’s subcommittee on energy and water development appropriations.
Durbin and the rest of the Illinois delegation must try to keep the project alive until June, when the DOE can legally cancel its contract with the companies making up the FutureGen Alliance.
Wednesday’s announcement “is simply another step in the department’s ill-advised attempt to move the ball downfield before time expires,” U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, an Illinois Republican, said in a statement. “A real commitment to cutting-edge carbon capture demands” a legislative fight on Mattoon’s behalf.
Pacheco said the political pressure on the Energy Department — and the fact Congress has to sign off on the department’s retooled plan — leaves the alliance “cautiously optimistic” Mattoon will win.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from members on the Hill,” Pacheco said. “And there have been a number of hearings over the last month in which members of Congress have expressed pretty deep skepticism about DOE’s plans to restructure FutureGen.”
Durbin and others have long suspected politics and President Bush’s Texas roots were behind the decision to restructure FutureGen — Mattoon was chosen over another Illinois site and two in Texas.
Under the new plan, developers of power plants would have to apply to the Energy Department for a slice of the $1.3 billion.
Albright said it was unclear how many projects the money would help fund.
He said each plant will permanently store underground at least 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. The sites also must capture at least 81 percent of the carbon dioxide, with a goal of reaching 90 percent, Albright said.
The plant also must generate at least 300 megawatts of electricity, just 25 megawatts more than the original plan.
Anyone wanting to weigh in the Energy Department’s blueprint may do so until May 21.
The department expects to formally begin soliciting applications from developers this summer, with the projects to be decided by the end of the year.
“I want it to be good, hard competition, and we want pencils to be as sharp as possible as they put their bids in,” Albright said. “We’re trying to get a good deal for taxpayers and wanting to do the right thing for the environment.”
Among the companies that make up FutureGen Alliance are American Electric Power Inc., BHP Billiton, Consol Energy Inc., Foundation Coal Corp., Peabody Energy Corp. and Rio Tinto Energy.
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