Senators ask Energy Department to continue funding FutureGen

By Jim Suhr

ST. LOUIS – The senior U.S. senators from Illinois and Missouri pressed anew Monday for the Energy Department to hold off on plans to scuttle its deal with an alliance of big power and coal companies to build a nearly emissions-free power plant.

Sens. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, urged Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman in a letter to continue funding the project known as FutureGen into March of next year, allowing the next president to consider its fate.

The deal between the Energy Department and the coalition of roughly a dozen energy companies is to expire June 15, when the DOE can legally cancel the contract.

FutureGen’s developers in December tapped Mattoon, Ill. as the site for FutureGen, under which carbon dioxide from the planned coal-fired power plant would be trapped and permanently stored underground. The Energy Department pulled the plug in January, citing costs that had ballooned to $1.8 billion, nearly double the original price tag.

The DOE announced this month it is moving in a different direction and expects to spend up to $1.3 billion on multiple clean-coal power plants involving carbon capture and below-ground sequestration in yet to be determined sites.

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The DOE said it would be smarter to spread taxpayer money around to several smaller projects and considers the alternate plan a faster because it instantly commercializes the technology.

Undeterred, Durbin and Bond sponsored an amendment to a war-funding measure that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 15, calling for the Energy Department to continue funding FutureGen until March of next year. The full Senate has yet to take up that measure.

“We believe it is critical for this program and for the project at Mattoon to move forward,” the senators wrote. “While we would prefer that the Department of Energy administratively extend the current budget period of the cooperative agreement (with the FutureGen Alliance), we felt compelled to push for this extension legislatively.”

Angela Hill, spokeswoman for the DOE, said in an e-mail that it is still committed to the restructured plan.

“This restructured plan will accelerate the deployment of advanced clean coal technology in a way that maximizes federal investment and limits risk to American taxpayers,” she said. “It also builds on technology advancements … and reflects the changing market conditions since 2003.”

Durbin has threatened to block White House appointments to the Energy Department unless it reverses course on FutureGen, calling the Energy Department’s new plan “merely a mask for their embarrassment.”

“Our goal is to keep the location in Mattoon until this administration packs and leaves town,” Durbin has said, noting that authorities have invested five years of study, as well as federal and state funds, in the Mattoon site.

Anyone wanting to weigh in the Energy Department’s blueprint may do so until Wednesday. The department expects to formally begin soliciting applications from developers this summer, with the projects to be decided by the end of the year.