The White House Walks Away from Clean Coal

A $1 billion Illinois project, meant to be the poster child for coal’s climate-friendly future, gets scuttled.

A bulldozer moves coal at a coal mine in Carlinville, Ill.

A bulldozer moves coal at a coal mine in Carlinville, Ill.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

On the banks of the Illinois River, about 60 miles west of the state capital in Springfield, an old coal-fired power plant sits waiting for its future to arrive. First opened in 1948, it’s been dormant since 2011, when its owner, St. Louis-based Ameren, shut down the plant rather than retrofit it to meet federal standards. Last year workers came to give it a makeover. Using almost $1 billion in stimulus money, the project was supposed to become the poster child for clean-coal technology. Rather than spewing into the sky, the carbon dioxide produced as the plant burned coal would be captured into a pipeline buried below corn and soybean fields. It would run 30 miles east to Jacksonville, where the gas would be injected 4,000 feet underground. “It was like we were the phoenix rising,” says the plant’s director, Mike Long.

The resurrection was short-lived. On Feb. 3, the Department of Energy announced it was withdrawing support. Environmentalists who want investment in renewable power technologies rather than fossil energy cheered the decision. “We don’t need it, and we can’t afford it,” Bruce Nilles, head of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, says of carbon-capture projects.

President Obama has made addressing climate change a key part of his legacy. In November he struck an historic agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The White House has backed solar and wind power projects and touted the benefits of the country’s surging production of natural gas, which burns about 50 percent cleaner than coal, still the largest source of electricity in the U.S. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency proposed tighter standards for existing power plants.

The Illinois project, called FutureGen, was supposed to be a model for coal’s climate-friendly future. It was backed by some of the world’s biggest coal mining companies, who created a nonprofit, the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, to oversee the plant’s conversion. The White House saw FutureGen as a way to show leaders in China and India, where coal fuels more than half of electricity generation, that they can address their own carbon emissions without compromising economic growth. About 40 percent of man-made carbon emissions come from power plants.

Source: SaskPower

The White House says the decision to walk away from FutureGen doesn’t mean it’s abandoning carbon capture. Since 2009 the Department of Energy has invested $6 billion in clean coal, and Obama included about $2 billion in tax credits for carbon capture in his proposed 2016 budget. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a Feb. 6 briefing the decision is “absolutely not” a signal Obama is retreating. “The administration has shown unprecedented support for clean-coal technologies,” he said.

Yet Obama decided not to fight for FutureGen after Republicans in Congress refused in December to extend a September deadline for using the stimulus money allocated to the project in 2009. “It makes no sense to pull the plug on $1 billion committed to America’s signature near-zero emissions power project at such a critical time for these investments in technology,” said Gregory Boyce, chairman and chief executive officer of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company and one of FutureGen’s backers.

SaskPower opened the world’s first full-scale clean-coal plant last October, in Canada’s Saskatchewan province. Known as Boundary Dam, the plant cost $1.2 billion, $190 million of which came from the Canadian government. Its emissions travel down a pipeline rather than up a smokestack. But Boundary Dam enjoys one key advantage over FutureGen: Rather than simply burying its emissions, it sells the CO2 to an oil company, which injects the compressed gas into old wells to coax more oil to the surface—a process known as “enhanced oil recovery.” That turns the CO2 into a marketable byproduct, creating a steady revenue stream that offsets some of the costs of putting a lid on emissions.

A similar project is under way in Texas, where NRG Energy, a utility in Houston, is leading a $1 billion effort to build a clean-coal plant called Petra Nova. The project got $167 million in federal funds. As part of the deal, NRG bought a stake in a nearby oil field. The idea is to inject Petra Nova’s CO2 emissions into the wells there, boosting production from 500 barrels a day to an estimated average of 15,000 barrels a day for 10 years. Selling that oil is “the only meaningful way for us to generate a return for shareholders,” says John Ragan, president of NRG’s Carbon 360 group.

Pairing carbon capture with the enhanced recovery of crude oil is hardly a vision for a perfect clean-energy solution. It’s another reason many environmentalists oppose clean-coal technology; it’s also why FutureGen was so important to clean coal. If it worked, it would have demonstrated that carbon capture makes economic sense without having to rely on revenue from oil sales. As oil prices fall, financing clean coal through crude production has started to look like an increasingly shaky business model. In early February, Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company, said in a statement that its carbon-capture unit has stopped taking on new business.

The four other clean-coal plants that are in the works in the U.S. are all designed to deliver their captured emissions to oil producers. With the exception of Petra Nova, they’re all either behind schedule, over budget, or both. The cost of building Southern Co.’s Kemper plant in Mississippi, which has received $270 million in federal funds, is now estimated at $6.2 billion, more than double its original price. The facility is scheduled to open in 2016.

In Texas, Summit Power is past its deadline to begin construction on a $1.7 billion coal plant that’s been awarded $450 million in federal funding as well as more than $600 million in tax credits. A plant in California that got about $400 million in federal money, the $4 billion Hydrogen Energy California project (HECA), is also behind schedule. Now that the Energy Department has pulled support for FutureGen, “I think both of those projects are likely dead,” says Jim Wood, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2012 and now heads the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center at West Virginia University. A Summit spokeswoman says the company is rushing to complete financing and begin construction. HECA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The lack of viable clean-coal plants means the Obama administration will have to rely even more on boosting renewables and natural gas as a source of electricity to achieve its goals of cutting power plant CO2 emissions by 30 percent by 2030. It also highlights why its 2010 cap-and-trade proposal for regulating emissions by power generators was so crucial. Congress failed to pass a bill that would have provided an estimated $75 billion in incentives for coal plants using carbon-capture technology through 2030, and about $177 billion through 2050. Without it, the administration has less to offer the utilities to get them to invest in clean-coal technology.

The struggles of FutureGen and other clean-coal projects create another problem for the White House’s climate policy. The regulations the EPA is developing lower the amount of allowed emissions for coal plants to the point that it’s impossible to build one without using carbon capture. In the absence of commercially viable carbon-capture technology, utilities may have an opening to challenge the new regulations in court, says Jeff Holmstead, a former senior EPA official under George W. Bush who now works at lobbying powerhouse Bracewell & Giuliani. The EPA has already extended the time frame utilities would have for complying with new emissions standards. “I think there is a good chance they’ll finalize a rule with a higher emission rate,” Holmstead says.

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