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Falling Out of Love With FutureGen

Many were shocked last year when the Bush Administration pulled the plug on FutureGen, a planned "near-zero emission" coal-burning power plant in Illinois.  After all, President George W. Bush himself had unveiled the project 5 years earlier, and his then-Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham, had called it "one of the boldest steps our nation has taken toward a pollution-free energy future." The project also boasted international partners in India, China, and South Korea.

A new staff report from the House of Representatives science committee pulls back the curtain on that decision.  It reveals how Abraham's successor as energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, came to despise FutureGen and killed the program despite strong opposition from career officials in the fossil fuels division of his department.

According to internal notes and e-mails cited in the committee report, Bodman was "aggravated by this project," especially its doubled price tag (to $1.8 billion) and the fact that the U.S. government would be on the hook for 74% of its cost. He and his top aides proposed a new deal with industry: Private companies would pay the entire cost of a new "combined cycle" power plant that converted coal into gas, with DOE paying for the cost of only capturing the carbon dioxide and burying it deep underground.

Officials in DOE's "clean coal" program didn't think the new plan would fly because private companies considered coal gasification plants risky and wouldn't pay for them. Victor Der, a 35-year veteran of DOE's bureaucracy, gave pungent expression to his skepticism in a series of e-mails. "Have fun in this dump," he wrote to colleagues who were drafting alternatives to FutureGen. When the new plan appeared, Der wrote, "Here's the Frankenstein. I'll be calling [the National Energy Technology Laboratory] to see where they are in the electrodes development to make it walk."  

According to the science committee's report, Der's skepticism was warranted.  Industry groups haven't been willing to participate in the government's new "restructured FutureGen."  DOE has received only two acceptable proposals, and neither one includes a coal gasification plant.

FutureGen's cancellation also angered its non-U.S. partners. The committee's report includes this response from Kijune Kim, South Korea's minister of commerce, industry and energy: "If you have recognized all Korea’s endeavor regarding the project, it is not the appropriate way to deliver U.S. DOE’s intention to restructure FutureGen project by sending me an e-mail ... without any prior consultation or explanation to Korea."