House obtains documents regarding FutureGen

By Renee Chako

The U.S. House’s Science Committee and other supporters of the FutureGen project made progress Thursday after nearly three months spent requesting the release of documents from the White House and Department of Energy about the cancellation of the plans for a clean coal-powered plant in nearby Mattoon.

The committee discussed their plans to obtain the documents and were prepared to issue a subpoena. However, the White House and the Department of Energy relented and agreed to release the requested documents within the next several days.

“When you manage the people’s money, as the Department of Energy has on FutureGen, you owe the people’s representatives an explanation of what you do with that money,” said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the subcommittee’s chairman, in a press release issued after the notice from White House officials. “We have not had adequate answers on FutureGen decisions and the only way to get them is from documents held by the department.”

The committee has sought information on the decision to eliminate the project since April. The department claimed a search for other alternative sources of energy would be more productive. The documents requested by the committee include a briefing memorandum for the White House National Economic Counsel produced in December of 2007 by department staff that laid out the reasons for terminating the FutureGen project and restructuring the program. The request also includes talking points drafted by department staff for Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman that month, and e-mail traffic between a White House staffer and department officials regarding project costs.

“We are still suspicious of the department,” said Phil Bloomer, press secretary for Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-Ill. “There is still seemingly no rationale for withdrawing the project.”

Rep. Johnson and the Illinois Congressional Delegation, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have been working for the past several months to receive more information about why Illinois was no longer the chosen spot for the project. Mattoon had been in contention to become the site of the project since its announcement by the Bush administration in 2003. In January, Bodman announced the department’s decision to seek alternatives for the project. The official withdrawal from the initiative was announced in June.

Durbin has continuously expressed his strong concerns with the department’s handling of the withdrawal. According to a press release issued in January, Durbin said that the secretary of energy had “misled the people of Illinois” in a way he had not seen in 25 years in the legislature.

The department cited “cost overruns” on the $1.8 billion public-private project, three-forths of which would have been paid by federal funds. However, according to Coles Together President Angela Griffin, the figure had already been used by the FutureGen Alliance for more than a year.

“There are no cost overruns for this project,” Griffin said. “The figure had been used for one and a half years and the project hasn’t changed. The only changes in cost would be because of inflation.”

According to Griffin, the advanced coal-fired power plant that would capture and store emissions of carbon dioxide would also provide 150 permanent jobs, 2500 or more construction jobs over four years and more supporting jobs, depending on the success of the program.

Alternative projects proposed by the department include a number of smaller demonstration projects. No alternative site has been definitively chosen, and the department has suggested Mattoon could be in the running as a site of another initiative.

Though the document battle seems to be ending, several other obstacles stand in the way of bringing the project back to Illinois. As of June 15, the budget period of the Cooperative Agreement between the department and the FutureGen Alliance had expired. Durbin has requested that the budget period be extended and has committed to formally objecting to any further nominations for which the department is seeking approval for in the Senate.

Both Johnson and Durbin have met with support in both parties, with similar admissions that there is little hope in moving forward with the project during the current administration.

With freedom from foreign energy dependence and emphasis on cleaner air on both campaigns’ agendas, the FutureGen project could carry into the next administration. Barack Obama has pledged his full commitment to the project and Sen. John McCain has discussed the initiative in a recent speech on energy.

“The amount of support we are receiving not just from Illinois but throughout the nation is proof that people have interest in seeing the project come to completion,” said Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Durbin. “Sen. Durbin will try hard to keep the project alive until the next administration and will work with the Obama campaign and as needed to advocate the project.””