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Government, Politics & Issues

Back to the FutureGen: Feds commit $1 billion in stimulus money for carbon capture plant in Mattoon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2009 - For residents of the Illinois town of Mattoon, it's back to the FutureGen.

The on-again, off-again clean coal project gained new life on Friday with the announcement by Energy Secretary Steven Chu of an agreement with the FutureGen Alliance for the $1.5 billion carbon capture and sequestration plant. It would be the nation's first such operation on a commercial scale.

Under the agreement, the federal government would use more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money for the project. Members of the FutureGen Alliance, including Peabody Energy in St. Louis, would contribute up to $600 million over the next four to six years.

FutureGen is designed to generate electricity while capturing and permanently storing carbon dioxide deep beneath the earth. The plant would also produce hydrogen and byproducts that could be used by other industries. The FutureGen Alliance said the plant's 275 megawatts of electricity would be enough to power 150,000 American homes.

"This important step forward for FutureGen reflects this administration's commitment to rapidly developing carbon capture and sequestration technology as part of a comprehensive plan to create jobs, develop clean energy and reduce climate change pollution," Chu said.

"The FutureGen project holds great promise as a flagship facility to demonstrate carbon capture and storage at commercial scale. Developing this technology is critically important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and around the world."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has pushed for the project, called the agreement "an historic moment for both our state and our country.

"In my time in Congress, I can't recall a project that has greater scientific and practical significance than FutureGen, not to mention the enormous economic benefit it will have in Illinois."

Construction jobs for the plant are expected to reach as high as 700 workers, with a permanent workforce of more than 100 jobs once the plant is operational.

One of the longest backers of the project in Mattoon has been Angela Griffin, who heads Coles Together, the economic development organization of Coles County, about 150 miles northeast of St. Louis in central Illinois. Recalling how she began working to bring the plant to Mattoon in March 2006, she said:

"We're still on the roller coaster a little bit, but for the most part, it's all positive. We have all the players back at the table, finally."

She noted that Barack Obama backed the project when he represented Illinois in the Senate, but she added that the decision announced Friday was not just political.

"We're encouraged that Secretary Chu is taking his time and coming out in support of the project on the merits this time."

Fred Palmer, Peabody Energy's senior vice president of government relations and a board member of the FutureGen Alliance, said in a statement:

"FutureGen is the ultimate shovel-ready, economic stimulus project. It has the power to create a new, clean energy model that will drive low-carbon, high-growth economies. With this decision, America's global leadership shines bright as we lead the world advancing clean coal solutions for energy security, economic growth and environmental progress."

The agreement announced by Chu includes a timetable starting next month of resumption of preliminary design work, followed by completion of a site-specific design and updated cost estimate; expansion of the alliance sponsorship group; and development of a complete funding plan.

A final decision on whether to move ahead with the plant is expected early next year.

Resurrection of the project seemed unlikely when the Bush administration moved to scrap the plant almost exactly a year ago, saying that the cost had grown too large.

At that time, Durbin issued a statement that proved prophetic:

"In just a few months, this administration will be packing up and leaving town. I am going to be here waiting for the next administration to make good on the federal government's commitment to move forward with this important project."

Then, earlier this year, the Energy Department said the earlier decision had been based on a $500 million math mistake -- an error that Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Science Committee, branded as "math illiteracy on a grand scale and with global consequences."

According to a report in the New York Times, two numbers were compared that should not have been -- one that estimated costs in constant dollars and the other than did so based on adjustments for inflation.

Because Obama had backed the project in his home state when he was in the Senate, resumption of FutureGen had been expected under his administration. Mattoon was selected as the site for the plant in December 2007 over three other contenders, including Tuscola, Ill., just north of Mattoon, and two sites in Texas.

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