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Thirteen years ago, the administration of President George W. Bush announced plans for the first emission-free coal plant, showing that America could be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels.
At the time, Spencer Abraham, Bush’s energy secretary, called the FutureGen project “one of the boldest steps our nation takes toward a pollution-free future.”
The plan is to retrofit an aging coal-fired plant outside of the town of Meredosia, Ill., to capture its carbon dioxide and pipe it below ground for permanent storage. But changes in its design and cost overruns may mean the project will never be realized.
The federal government has promised $1 billion stimulus under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help fund the $1.65 billion project, and construction has begun on the plant’s chimney foundation.
If completed, it would work by burning coal in a stream of pure oxygen so that at least 90 percent of the CO2 can be isolated, liquefied, compressed, then stored in a natural underground salt cave more than 4,000 feet below Jacksonville, Ill., about 30 miles southeast of Meredosia.
None of this would have been possible unless the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hadn’t granted the project the EPA’s first underground-injection permit for CO2. And none of it might still be possible if a Sierra Club lawsuit challenging the permit is successful. Sierra's goal is to stop all use of coal.
In a statement, FutureGen CEO Ken Humphreys said the suit is discouraging potential investors from contributing the remaining $650 million to complete the project. Complicating matters is that the $1 billion stimulus promised by the federal government won’t be available unless FutureGen begins using the money by September, 2015.
Carbon capture is an important element of any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but efforts worldwide have been meager. The International Energy Agency estimates that CO2 storage must increase by more than one hundredfold by 2030 to make even a small difference in emissions.
Yet the only functioning carbon-capture facility in the United States is a small demonstration unit in Mobile, Ala. A couple dozen other projects around the world are still in the planning stages, and several existing projects use CO2 in a process called “enhanced oil recovery,” similar to hydraulic fracturing, to help force more oil out of wells.
And while carbon-capture can be profitable in oil recovery, utilities see it as just another expense. They often point to a project outside DeKalb, Miss., which is scheduled to open in May 2015, but has faced cost overruns of more than $5 billion.
Despite the initial promise of the project and the support from two presidents, how this story ends is anybody's guess.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com