United States: A rocky start for 'clean coal'

The US Department of Energy announced January 30 that it is pulling out of the Futuregen Project in Mattoon, Illinois — the United States' US$1.8 billion "clean coal" demonstration plant, scheduled to start construction next year. The 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 — pressurise it into a liquid, and store it underground "forever". This is also known as "carbon capture and storage", or geosequestration.

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

The 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 US response to global warming — and therefore, arguably, the future of the planet — is wrapped up in this fight.

'Bold' plan

US President George Bush personally announced the Futuregen project February 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 more than two kilometres, 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. Coal gasification had been demonstrated at commercial scale a decade ago at the small (260-megawatt) Polk Power Station in Florida. 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, reducing near-term CO2 emissions by perhaps 85% compared to standard coal-burning plants. (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 is to store CO2 below ground for 5000 years.)

As the first US demonstration of carbon capture and storage below ground from a coal-fired power plant, the Futuregen project seemed crucial for the future of the coal industry. In 2002, the US emitted a total of 5611 megatonnes (millions of metric tonnes) of CO2 from the combustion of all fossil fuels (coal, oil, petroleum and natural gas).

The country'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 petrol-powered automobiles in the US (1176 megatonnes).

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

Carbon capture and storage (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 electricity producers favour 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 favour CCS because without it their day is done. And the railway corporations like CCS because 44% of all rail freight (by weight) is coal.

Saving coal

James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading US 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 phase out of coal, the coal industry is desperately eager to "demonstrate" that CO2 can be captured and sequestered below ground.

Without CCS, coal is over, and if coal is over then space opens up for renewable technologies. It poses a basic choice: stick with 19th century technologies (coal and oil) or move into the 21st century and revitalise our economy and our standing in the world at the same time.

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

Futuregen dead, CSS survives

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 Bush's 2009 budget includes a $648 million subsidy for coal — a $129 million (25%) increase over 2008.

Sell pointed out that there are at least 33 coal plants planned, or under construction, using 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 DoE beheaded the 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.

[From Rachel's Democracy & Health News #944, January 31, 2008.]

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