At a time of soaring oil and gas prices and mounting concerns about climate change, the Bush administration and industry routinely point to "clean coal" technology as one of the most promising energy innovations on the horizon. Strangely enough, some environmental leaders are beginning to do the same.
New technologies are in development that could make coal-powered generation almost completely smog-free and easily conducive to capturing and storing carbon-dioxide emissions. Given that coal accounts for a whopping 50 percent of U.S. electricity production, it can't realistically be phased out overnight -- or even in the next half-century -- which means that transition technologies are critical.
The business community, for its part, is atwitter with excitement over clean-coal developments. Last month, the New York Times published a cover story in its business section titled "Fuel of the Future? Some Say Coal," reporting a huge increase in investments in coal generation as a result of rising oil and gas prices. Likewise, a leading business newsletter, Platts, published a report last week on the ballooning demand for clean-coal facilities.
But despite mounting enthusiasm for the technology, clean coal apparently got short shrift when Congress approved the $388 billion omnibus spending bill last week. The White House was granted only $18 million -- a sliver of its $237 million funding request for fiscal year 2005 -- for its "FutureGen" program to develop zero-emission coal-fired power plants within the next decade.
The program, often touted by the administration as one of its leading efforts to address global warming, is centered around a new technology known as "integrated gasification combined-cycle" power-generating units (IGCC for short). These next-generation plants do not directly burn coal, as traditional plants do, but pressurize it, thereby producing a gas from which smog-causing pollutants can easily be filtered before the gas is used to power a jet-engine-style turbine (much like the ones in natural-gas power plants). The pressurizing process also releases a stream of carbon-dioxide emissions that can be captured for underground sequestration.
According to Tom Gavin, spokesman for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.), who has been the leading advocate of clean-coal technology on Capitol Hill, IGCC has big environmental advantages over traditional coal plants. Plus, the technology is ready to go: "Several models have already been built and proved successful. The technology can already reduce key pollutants -- nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulates -- by more than 90 percent."
Gavin added that eliminating carbon-dioxide emissions is also perfectly practicable: "While [the current] models aren't designed to capture and sequester carbon dioxide, it is feasible from a technical perspective for them to do so."
Of course, there are those environmentalists who say clean coal is perfectly foolish. Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, is loath to call the technology "clean": "There is no such thing as 'clean coal' and there never will be. It's an oxymoron," he said.
The trouble with IGCC, according to Becker, is that carbon sequestration has not yet been proved a successful technique, and extracting coal from the earth can be so damaging in itself that boosting coal generation will inevitably have dire consequences for the natural world. He also believes that IGCC technology could be used as an excuse to build hundreds of new coal plants, diverting investments from renewable sources and stalling the shift away from fossil fuels.
David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center, has a different take on the matter. He points out that coal accounts for more than a third of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions and nearly 40 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions. "In the next several decades, coal is an inevitable and substantial part of the global energy mix, so to the extent that we are going to use it, we believe coal-based generation should be IGCC with carbon capture and storage," he told Muckraker.
The biggest growth in coal generation is likely to be in developing countries like China, where coal is in far more abundant supply than oil or natural gas. "The best argument for this technology is the developing world," concedes Becker. "China and India have access to an enormous amount of coal that may be burned whether we like it or not." Down the line, he said, carbon sequestration may be their only hope.
So with everyone from Bushies to greenies touting the potential benefits of clean-coal technology, why did FutureGen -- the program intended to spur IGCC and carbon sequestration development -- get overlooked in the 2005 budget? The answer, put simply, is that the Bush program is more smoke and mirrors than substance.
"The administration pays lip service to this project, but will have to spend more political capital to actually move this technology," said Rusty Mathews, a former Senate staffer who worked on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 and is now a legislative specialist with the law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky. "IGCC technology is the ultimate integration of environment and energy policy -- it is the future -- but it still needs funding to get off the ground. The Bush administration is not committing the resources and planning necessary to make it happen."
In fact, the $18 million that Congress granted for the program was all that the administration had earmarked to spend for 2005 -- no plan had been outlined for what to do with the additional $219 million requested. Moreover, the money requested for FutureGen wasn't new funding, exactly; rather, it would have meant diverting funding from other clean-coal technology projects.
Critics say that the Bush plan would do nothing for clean coal in the near term. FutureGen aims to get just one prototype up and running by 2008 -- a goal seriously lacking in ambition given that the technology exists today to have four or five plants built in the next several years.
"Our nation's energy future will be built upon the decisions we make today [to] support new research and technologies that contribute to an energy-independent and environmentally sound America," Byrd told Muckraker. "But shortchanging these technologies, as the Bush White House has done time and time again, only undercuts our nation's energy independence and national security."
Part of the problem is that there's hesitancy within the coal industry to embrace this paradigm shift; IGCC technology is currently some 20 to 30 percent more expensive than traditional systems. Economies of scale will take care of that eventually, but in the meantime the industry is concerned that once the technology is on the market it will be pressured to upgrade its plants.
According to Mathews, the Bush administration is using FutureGen as an excuse to avoid taking real action on climate change. "Basically it's a dodge," he said. "Whenever they're asked about climate change, they say we don't need caps on carbon emissions. We don't need regulations. We'll solve this problem by throwing money at emerging technologies -- with FutureGen and FreedomCar -- so leave us alone!"
IGCC advocates hope that with increasing pressure on Bush from both domestic and international fronts to address the reality of climate change, at the very least he will take FutureGen more seriously, aggressively subsidizing the technology and stepping up the timetable rather than waiting 10 years for it to take shape.
For the time being, however, FutureGen is just another cryptically named environmental gimmick from the Bush team: "You could call FutureGen FreedomCar without wheels," Hawkins told Muckraker. "The problem, fundamentally, is that the Bush administration fails to grasp the urgency of climate change. What they don't understand is that when your roof is burning, you don't research fire-suppression methods, you call the fire department."