Following the Department of Energy’s (DOE) surprise FutureGen project restructuring that aims to cancel the government funding and support of the proposed Mattoon, IL, project, Illinois lawmakers — feeling like the rug was pulled out from underneath the state — came together from both sides of the aisle to inform President Bush that they have lost confidence in Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and hope that the president will move forward with the FutureGen program as planned.

The fracas began last Tuesday in a closed door meeting with lawmakers and again in a press conference on Wednesday, when Bodman said that due to increased costs of the project and the advancement of technology since the project’s 2003 inception, the DOE was moving away from the FutureGen project’s single living laboratory model and restructuring plans to focus on adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to multiple commercial-scale integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) clean coal power plants.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Barack Obama (D-IL), along with Reps. Tim Johnson (R-IL), Jerry Costello (D-IL), Ray LaHood (R-IL), Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), Peter Roskam (R-IL), Phil Hare (D-IL), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Danny Davis (D-IL), sent a letter to Bush last Wednesday urging him to stay behind the original FutureGen program despite objections raised in Tuesday’s meeting by Bodman.

“Yesterday, we were informed by your Secretary of Energy that he was radically restructuring the FutureGen project — effectively killing the program in Central Illinois,” the lawmakers stated in their letter to Bush. “As you may recall, FutureGen is the cornerstone of your clean coal initiative and a project that your administration has been pushing for more than five years. This project will design and construct a commercial scale coal-fueled power plant with a large-scale carbon capture and storage capacity.”

Citing the fact that there are more than 33 proposed IGCC plants currently in various stages of permitting across the United States, Bodman said the DOE will join industry in its efforts to build IGCC plants by providing funding for the addition of CCS technology to multiple plants that will be operational by 2015. Bodman noted that the approach builds on technological research and development advancements in IGCC and CCS technology achieved over the past five years and is expected to at least double the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered compared to the concept that was originally announced in 2003.

Explaining the reasoning behind dropping the original FutureGen project, Bodman noted in a conference call with the media last Wednesday that the original $1 billion FutureGen price tag in 2003 had ballooned to $1.8 billion as of 2008, which DOE would be on the hook for 74%.

“This restructured FutureGen approach is an all-around better investment for Americans. As technological advancements have been realized in the last five years, we are eager to demonstrate CCS technology on commercial plants that, when operational, will be the cleanest coal-fired plants in the world,” Bodman said. “Each of these plants will sequester at least one million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually and helping meet our nation’s rapidly growing energy demand.”

As part of the restructured FutureGen initiative, the DOE Wednesday issued a Request for Information (RFI) that seeks industry’s input by March 3 on the costs and feasibility associated with building clean coal facilities that achieve the intended goals of FutureGen. Following this period and consideration of industry comment, DOE intends to issue a Funding Opportunity Announcement — or competitive solicitation — to provide federal funding under cooperative agreements to equip IGCC (or other clean coal technology) commercial power plants that generate at least 300 MW with CCS technology aimed at accelerating near-term technology deployment. Initial input from industry will assist in determining how many demonstrations can be commissioned.

Under the DOE’s new plan, the government agency’s investment would provide funding for no more than the CCS component of the power plant — not the entire plant construction. The DOE said this would allow for commercial operation of IGCC power plants equipped with CCS technology to begin as soon as the plants are commissioned, between 2015 and 2016. Bodman noted that the new plan would offer “tremendous potential for commercial viability,” while the old 2003 plan, which called for one 275 MW power plant that produced hydrogen and electricity from coal on a smaller-than-commercial scale, was only serving as a laboratory for technology development.

In their letter to Bush, the lawmakers added that the site selection of Mattoon might have had something to do with the DOE’s surprise reversal of course. Following a fierce siting battle between two locations in Illinois and two locations in Texas, the Mattoon site was chosen last December.

“Many have argued that this abrupt about face by Secretary Bodman was the direct result of the FutureGen Alliance choosing Mattoon, IL, as the site, over Texas applicants,” the lawmakers said. “While we’d like not to believe this theory, there is no other plausible explanation. As recently as Nov. 30, 2007, Secretary Bodman assured members of the Illinois congressional delegation that FutureGen was on track for final approval from the department by the end of the calendar year, including a record of decision (ROD). After careful scientific vetting and a comprehensive environmental review, the FutureGen Alliance chose Mattoon as the site on Dec. 18, 2007.

“Yesterday, the Secretary informed a bipartisan, bicameral gathering of the Illinois congressional delegation that he would not release a ROD on FutureGen. Further, he stated that he was going to scrap your signature clean coal initiative, redesign it, and recompete it,” the lawmakers said. “And he refused to delay his announcement in order for us to help address outstanding issues with the department and the alliance. This after the community, the state of Illinois, private industry and international partners spent years successfully working together to site FutureGen in Mattoon, IL, and to provide much needed funding.”

Addressing Bodman’s complaint on the rising cost of the project, the lawmakers said that when the secretary was assured that they were prepared to provide adequate funding and to resolve any other outstanding issues between the administration and the FutureGen Alliance if he would take steps to move FutureGen forward, “he unequivocally refused.” With that said, the Illinois politicians said that it is hard for them to believe that cost concerns constitute Bodman’s real objection to the project.

“Mr. President, we have lost confidence in Secretary Bodman,” they said. “From moving the rare isotope accelerator project to the back burner (a spirited competition between Illinois and Michigan) to short-changing our national laboratories to his troubling comments about ethanol and alternative fuels to this recent FutureGen debacle, he has proven to be no ally in our efforts to promote scientific research, address new technology for clean energy development and to boost our struggling economy. We feel that the secretary misled us and the people of Illinois, creating false hope in a FutureGen project which he had no intention of funding or supporting. We are writing today to urge you to keep FutureGen on track, so that this project can begin construction and become a reality.”

The DOE noted that the four semifinalist FutureGen sites evaluated in the DOE’s Environmental Impact Statement issued in November 2007, which includes the Mattoon site, may be eligible to host a commercial-scale IGCC plant with CCS technology. Bodman said the site analysis and characterization data at these sites may be applicable to future environmental analyses under this restructured approach.

“More than one site may be selected as a host for the commercial demonstration of CCS technology and DOE encourages applicants to include these four sites in their consideration for this restructured approach,” the agency said. “Also, the FutureGen Alliance’s 13 member companies may compete with all the other applicants.”

First announced in February 2003, FutureGen was expected to be a cutting edge energy project that could prove that coal can be burned for power with little or no pollution. The original FutureGen was slated to begin operation in 2012.

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