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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008 06:49 am

FutureGen could be back on track

Coal foes promise to not get in the way

To help stimulate the economy, both in Illinois and nationwide, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin will ask president-elect Barack Obama to fast track a number of construction projects, including reviving the now-shelved 275-megawatt FutureGen coal gasification plant planned for Mattoon.

Durbin, speaking at the Capitol recently, said an economic stimulus package, which became a centerpiece of Obama’s presidential campaign down the stretch, would focus on infrastructure and jobs – more specifically, he said, “projects that will be ready to go within 180 days so that we can use the 2009 construction season to try to put more life into our economy.”

Government leaders and industry captains from Cairo to Cicero are hoping Obama’s election yields a deluge of federal cashola for Illinois. Most will meet with disappointment, but Durbin thinks the timing is perfect to move forward with FutureGen, the public-private enterprise the U.S. Department of Energy scrapped in January when the price tag for venture ballooned from $950 million to nearly $2 billion.

“This a project that has long-term economic and energy positive impact for Illinois,” said Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Indeed, FutureGen seems to be one of the few issues that brings together Illinois elected officials on both sides of the political aisle.

In 2007, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the Clean Coal FutureGen for Illinois Act, an incentive bill that had bipartisan support in the legislature. When the DOE halted FutureGen in early 2008, citing cost overruns, all 19 Illinois Democratic and Republican members of Congress called on President George W. Bush to reconsider. Republican U.S. Rep Tim Johnson, whose district includes Mattoon, called the DOE’s decision to pull out after sinking $30 million into the preliminary design phase “misguided and misinformed.”

Owned and operated by the FutureGen Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of energy companies, the plant would utilize near-zero emissions technologies: integrated gasification combined cycle as well as carbon capture and sequestration.

At this first of its kind facility, coal would be transformed into gases that produce the steam needed to generate electricity. That gas also produces hydrogen that can be used in fuel cells. The carbon dioxide is sequestered, or stored, underground instead of being emitted into the atmosphere.

According to the DOE’s environmental impact statement on the plan, completed in November 2007, the project would use 444 acres of land and require 3,000 gallons of water per minute. Process water for the plant would be supplied by waste water treatment plants in Mattoon and possibly nearby Charleston. An on-site reservoir could be constructed to store up to 25 million gallons of cooling water, the report indicates.

Meanwhile, CO2 storage would be located 1.3 to 1.6 miles underground; a second sequestration site is also proposed at a depth of .9 miles beneath the surface. The suggested reservoirs, located 200 miles from the New Madrid fault, have been used in the past for storing natural gas.

If Obama green lights FutureGen, either as part of a stimulus program or in his first federal budget, the project should move swiftly to completion. Environmental advocacy organization the Sierra Club, which typically tries to block construction of new coal-fired power plants, won’t stand in FutureGen’s way, says James Gignac, Midwest director of the Sierra Club National Coal Campaign in Chicago.

Gignac says the Sierra Club — which in 2006 threatened to hold up Springfield’s 200-megawatt reactor unless certain environmental protections were put in place — would not take legal action to prevent FutureGen from proceeding with construction if its air permits include limits on CO2 emissions.

To build the plant, the FutureGen Alliance would need to obtain from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency permits for underground injection control, air construction and air operating, water, and others, says IEPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson. Representatives from the Alliance have met with the IEPA, but the agency has not received a UIC permit, Carson says.

The Sierra Club isn’t stepping aside because the project is a boon to Illinois’ economy, however. Gignac believes FutureGen should determine once and for all whether burning coal without accelerating global warming is technologically and financially feasible.

“If sequestration is going to be a part of our future, we need to make that decision quickly,” Gignac says.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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