A Rocky Start for 'Clean Coal'
[Rachel's Introduction: In the U.S., the future of global warming hinges on a fight over coal-fired electric plants, which, together, emit 60% more carbon dioxide (CO2) than all the automobiles in the nation.]
Author Name: 
By Peter Montague
The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) announced January 30 that it is pulling out of the Futuregen Project in Mattoon, Illinois -- America's $1.8 billion "clean coal" demonstration plant scheduled to start construction next year. DoE had committed to paying 74% ($1.3 billion) of Futuregen's costs.

"Clean coal" is the coal industry's term for various end-of-pipe filters that capture carbon dioxide (CO2) -- the main global warming gas -- pressurize it into a liquid, and store it underground, hoping it will stay there forever. This is known as "carbon capture and storage" or CCS for short.

Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and other Illinois politicians immediately denounced DoE for reneging on its commitment to the Mattoon "clean coal" project. (Not to be outdone, Mr. Obama's political rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, has said that, if elected President, she will "put immediate funding towards 10 large-scale carbon capture and storage projects.")

DoE's 13 industrial partners in the Illinois project (the Futuregen Alliance) have bravely promised to press ahead, but without DoE's billions, the Illinois project is almost certainly dead.

Ho hum, you say?

Not so. The U.S. response to global warming -- and therefore, arguably, the future of the planet -- is wrapped up in this fight.

President Bush had personally announced the Futuregen project Feb. 17, 2003 as a "bold" 10-year demonstration to turn coal into gas (mainly hydrogen and carbon dioxide), burn the hydrogen to make electricity, and bury the carbon dioxide a mile underground, hoping it would stay there forever. Originally Futuregen was also intended to produce liquid transportation fuels from coal, according to the New York Times. In 2003, Futuregen was supposed to cost $750 million, but recent estimates have escalated to $1.8 billion, and further increases were expected, so the DoE pulled out.

Futuregen was an important part of the coal-industry's "clean coal" campaign because it would combine, for the first time, coal gasification with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Coal gasification had been demonstrated at commercial scale a decade ago at the small (260-megaWatt) Polk Power Station 40 miles southeast of Tampa, Fla. (Polk uses a system called IGCC, short for integrated gasification combined cycle.) Despite this technical innovation, Polk still emits its carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus contributing to global warming. Futuregen in Illinois was supposed to show that a small (275- megaWatt) electric power plant could combine coal gasification with carbon capture and storage (CCS), reducing near-term CO2 emissions by perhaps 85% compared to standard coal-burning plants.[1, pg. 4] (In the longer term, no one knows if, or when, CO2 stored below ground will escape to the atmosphere. The stated goal of the Futuregen project to store CO2 below ground for 5000 years.)

As the nation's first demonstration of carbon capture and storage (CCS) below ground from a coal-fired power plant, the Futuregen project seemed crucial for the future of the coal industry. In 2002, the U.S. emitted a total of 5611 megatonnes (millions of metric tonnes) of CO2 from the combustion of all fossil fuels (coal, oil, gasoline, and natural gas). The nation's roughly 500 coal-electric plants emitted 33% of this (1868 megatonnes), which is 60% more than all the CO2 released that year by all the gasoline-powered automobiles in the nation (1176 megatonnes).[2]

If you are looking for an obvious choke-point to cut greenhouse gases, coal is it.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) -- sometimes called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) -- would benefit other industries besides coal. An 85% reduction of CO2 emissions from coal plants would make "space" for the automobile industry to continue to pollute, so the automobile and oil corporations are enthusiastic about CCS for coal. The electric utilities favor CCS because it would mean they could stop worrying about unfamiliar renewable technologies like solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power; if they can get CCS going on a large scale, renewable energy won't be needed. Coal mining executives strongly favor CCS because without it their day is done. And the railroads favor CCS because 44% of all rail freight (by weight) is coal.[3]

To stop global warming, stop coal

James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading U.S. climate expert, testified in November, 2007, "Saving the planet and creation surely requires phase-out of coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered (stored in one of several possible ways)." And he has said even more dramatically, "If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains -- no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable, irreplaceable species," he said, reminding us that the future of all life on Earth is at stake.

To avoid a total phaseout of coal, the coal industry is desperately eager to "demonstrate" that CO2 can be captured and sequestered a mile below ground, where they hope it will stay forever.

To stop coal, stop CCS

Without CCS, coal is over, and if coal is over then space opens up for renewable technologies, creating an opportunity for America to revitalize its economy and once again demonstrate its industrial power, ingenuity, leadership, and productivity. It poses a basic choice for the nation: stick with 19th century technologies (coal and oil) or move into the 21st century and revitalize our economy and our standing in the world at the same time.

Naturally, with the coal, oil, automobile, mining and railroad industries depending upon it, carbon capture and storage will not be easily derailed. Both political parties enthusiastically endorse the coal industry's "clean coal" campaign. In his 2008 State of the Union address Jan. 28, President Bush said, "Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions." And, as noted above, both Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton support carbon capture and storage.

So Futuregen may be dead, but carbon capture and storage is anything but.

Two days after President Bush endorsed "clean coal" in his final State of the Union address, Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell held a press conference to renounce the Illinois Futuregen project. However, he was quick to point out that President Bush's 2009 budget includes a $648 million subsidy for coal -- a $129 million (25%) increase over 2008.

Mr. Sell pointed out that there are at least 33 coal plants planned, or under construction, using IGCC gasification technology. He gave the utilities until March 3 to apply for 100% government funding to add carbon capture and storage to any of those 33 projects. He said the DoE's new approach would result in "twice as much carbon" being buried in the ground in the next few years, compared to the Illinois Futuregen project.

So it seems apparent that the Department of Energy beheaded the Mattoon Futuregen project not to derail so-called "clean coal" but to accelerate its development, aiming to get CCS demonstration projects going more quickly in more places simultaneously. Like the mythical Hydra, a giant many-headed serpent with poisonous breath, Futuregen and its progeny will be hard to kill.

[More next time.]

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[1] IPCC Special Report Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2005). [24 Mbyte PDF]

[2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2005 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, April 15, 2007. See Table 2-1 in Annex 2. [27 Mbytes PDF]

[3] Association of American Railroads, Railroad Facts 2007 Edition (Washington, D.C.: 2007), pg. 28.