Mourning FutureGen(erations)



Yesterday the Bush administration put an end to the long drawn FutureGen saga. Five years ago in February 2003, the President proudly announced a "10-year demonstration project to create the world's first coal-based, zero-emissions electricity and hydrogen power plant" in what he called an "important effort to meet the world's growing energy needs, while protecting the health of our people and our environment".

Doubts always existed about the future of the project. Some pointedly called it NeverGen. NRDC's David Hawkins took a lighter stance and remarked that the project was "too much future, too little gen". Having never missed an opportunity to tout the project's environmental value and credentials, the administration yesterday wrote FutureGen's sad obituary or, to use Sec. Bodman's code language, announced a "Restructured FutureGen Approach to Demonstrate Carbon Capture and Storage Technology at Multiple Clean Coal Plants". In other words, they propose to try and appropriate some of the money that would have gone to FutureGen and divide it up to many projects. Something for everybody. And, we environmentalists should be happy too, because the restructured approach will "at least double the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered compared to the concept announced in 2003". Let's all rejoice!

Or not. Did Sec. Bodman ask himself whether money spread more thinly between several projects is likely to result in a fate different to that of FutureGen? What reason do we have to believe that this will be the case? Then again, this will not be his problem for much longer. Something for the new administration to deal with. Looks like he might be taking a page out of EPA Administrator Johnson's book and his recent tactics on denying California the right to set its own standards for global warming pollution from new cars and SUVs.

For the geologists, engineers and numerous others who devoted a serious amount of their time and effort in the past few years to put together the FutureGen project, the announcement must come as a big disappointment. For the Illinois team that was recently awarded the project over Texas in a two-horse final race for selection, the news must be particularly distressing. Should we be disappointed too? FutureGen would have produced some valuable results, data and experience in operating an integrated power sector capture and sequestration project. However, there is ample reason to be upbeat after the announcement.

For many years, the Bush administration dismissed the reality and importance of climate change. When they finally conceded that point in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, they claimed that technology would save the day, as if by magic and all by itself. FutureGen was a flagship project, and never an opportunity was missed to portray it as the gateway to a cleaner and secure energy future, the pathway to so-called "clean coal". But what yesterday's announcement said in the clearest of terms is that technology by itself in the absence of the right policy framework cannot save the day when it comes to clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The key missing piece for the widespread deployment of low-carbon technologies is an economy-wide cap & trade system with mandatory emission reduction targets. Only under such a framework can projects like FutureGen flourish - not through scant government funding but by leveraging the vastly larger financial clout of the private sector, with reliable public funding as a complement.

The private sector is ready to build its own FutureGens if Congress changes the rules of the game. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, the 10th largest American power generation company, famously stated referring to the power industry that "We are carboholics. Make us stop. Congress needs to act now to change our ways. Lawmakers should regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions by introducing a federal cap-and-trade system, which would put a cap and a market price on CO2emissions. If Congress acts now, the power industry will respond. But we need to move as quickly as possible toward implementing the low-emissions ways of combusting coal that are under development or, in the case of 'coal gasification' technology, are ready for commercial deployment". In his written testimony  to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, U.S. House of Representatives (September 21, 2007), Robert Malone, Chairman and President, BP America stated that "Deploying CCS at scale is not as much a question of technology availability but of economic viability. CCS is available today to play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change".

Pouring government money into carbon sequestration in the absence of carbon regulation is like trying to grow wine in an arid and unploughed field. Yesterday's announcement made that abundantly clear, and this is why we should take hope. In the absence of a flagship project like FutureGen, the way is clearer for getting on with what really needs to be done. The shortcomings of President Bush's approach have been highlighted yet again. Let's regulate carbon. FutureGens will sprout much faster. Then all the good work that Illinois and Texas put together will come to something. And let's do it fast or we will also be mourning the climate future generations will live in and not just FutureGen itself.

And while we are on the subject, let's not forget that coal just isn't "clean":

Even if CCS takes care of the CO2 from coal, we must also end abusive extraction practices and enforce compliance with mining laws.