July 21, 2008

National Coal Waste Proposal Stalls

By Mark Houser, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 21--A Pittsburgh-area coal company helping to build a power plant that stores its pollution deep underground might have to wait for the next president to decide whether the project remains buried.

Consol Energy Inc. has spent about half a million dollars on FutureGen, a project begun by President Bush in 2003 to build an experimental coal-burning plant with "near zero" greenhouse gas emissions.

The project has been stymied since January, when the Department of Energy, which was to provide 74 percent of the money, pulled out because of ballooning costs.

Scrapping the plant is a bad idea, said Steven Winberg, vice president of research for Upper St. Clair-based Consol. Winberg is Consol's representative in the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a consortium of power and mining companies charged with designing, building and operating the plant, and paying part of the cost.

"If the United States chooses not to make the necessary investments (in clean coal research), I think other countries ... will make the investments, and then there's the potential that the U.S. will not be exporting the technology, but importing it," Winberg said.

Slated for construction in central Illinois, the 275-megawatt facility would turn coal into a gas to fuel turbines, rather than burning coal powder. Carbon dioxide extracted from the process would be injected thousands of feet into the earth.

Originally budgeted at just under $1 billion, the Mattoon, Ill., plant's projected price tag is now $1.8 billion because of rising construction costs. Energy officials say that instead of building an experimental power plant and the environmental technology to go with it, the FutureGen money would be better spent testing only the carbon storage.

With oil prices soaring, coal is making a comeback. But coal-fired power plants produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which are blamed for contributing to global warming.

Many view so-called carbon capture and storage -- burying the carbon dioxide deep under bedrock -- as a promising solution.

At the G-8 economic summit last month in Japan, energy officials from the United States and other industrialized nations called for 20 large-scale demonstrations of carbon capture and storage worldwide by 2010.

Both major presidential candidates say they want billions more in federal spending on clean coal research.

Sen. John McCain visited with Consol officials here this month. In an e-mail to the Tribune-Review, a McCain spokesman said the Arizona Republican supports "projects like FutureGen" but said its cost is a "legitimate concern that must be addressed."

Democrat Sen. Barack Obama has been more explicit in supporting the proposed plant in his home state. Obama joined several Illinois politicians who signed a letter to the Department of Energy, accusing it of shutting down the project after the industry consortium picked Mattoon over a site in Bush's home state of Texas.

Cutting the project money is "just another example of (the Bush administration's) failure to address global warming and the energy crisis," an Obama spokesman said in an e-mail.

The department wants to spend FutureGen money on several smaller-scale projects that would add carbon capture and storage facilities onto power plants that industry will build.

Two or three such projects could be funded, said John Grasser, spokesman for the department's Office of Fossil Energy. The goal is to make the technology commercially viable, he said.

"That doesn't happen overnight. Our best guess is a dozen to 15 years before this is going to be available in the marketplace," Grasser said.

Construction on the original project was to begin in 2009, with the plant operating by 2012.

Congress is battling the White House to keep the Illinois plant alive. This month the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to protect $134 million in federal funding for the project, though that bill has not been passed by the full Senate.

Consol, one of the country's leading coal producers, stands to benefit if technology envisioned in the Illinois plant can be proven to work. The proposed plant would burn bituminous coal, the kind most commonly found in the company's Pennsylvania and West Virginia mines.


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