By Henry Henderson
Energy Secretary Chu has moved to restore the "FutureGen" project that the Bush Administration irresponsibly cancelled last summer. The action restarts an important effort to move the nation into a new energy future, which the past Administration's gaff had rendered "Too much Future and not enough Gen..."
FutureGen is a large-scale carbon capture and sequestration project that has the potential to manage coal's dangerous carbon emissions, along with significant reductions other pollutants such as mercury. While getting the federal climate bill signed into law is far more central to solving global warming, green lighting the FutureGen project sends an important signal and sets up a test of technology that could be part of the climate fight.
Carbon capture and sequestration (or CCS) removes CO2 from power plant air emissions and pumps deep underground into storage. FutureGen is intended as a demonstration project, to prove that the technology can work on a commercial scale. With coal generating more than half of the electricity in many American states (as well as countries like China and India), it is important to determine if this technology can be rapidly put into place to control greenhouse gas emissions, as a bridge to a broader clean energy economy.
Eventually this technology could help to address some of the serious harms caused by burning coal. And while problems with extraction, water pollution, destroyed mountain tops, poisonous coal ash floods demonstrate that there is no "clean coal," addressing global warming pollution from this fuel source is critically and immediately important.
While the technology could be important, the short term signal that this announcement sends could be even more valuable. It is a signal that American ingenuity is moving forward to fix the climate change problem. As we approach the international climate talks in Copenhagen this December, today's announcement takes on further importance.
Some may complain that FutureGen carries an undue cost that should not be shouldered by the American taxpayer and suggest that this research should have been handled by the coal and manufacturing industries.
I understand the sentiment---polluters should pay for their pollution.
But the reality is that absent a price on carbon, the private sector is not going to investto control what they can dump on the public for free. Absent a price on greenhouse gas emissions, the pollution is subsidized by the public, and the ultimate costs come in mortal threats to the public health, safety wellbeing and security. The immediate and long-term threats need to be addressed NOW. This forces public investment in order to bring the technology to scale and FutureGen is an important down payment on that investment.
Recognition of the need to put a price on greenhouse gas pollution reinforces the essential nature of the Waxman-Markey bill making its way through Congress. It also shows why we cannot dither on testing and demonstrating CCS technology---particularly if it means waiting for industries that have shown little interest in cleaning up their horrific operations. As Senator Durbin noted today:
"In my time in Congress, I can't recall a project that has greater scientific and practical significance than FutureGen, not to mention the enormous economic benefit it will have in Illinois."
With the announcement, the future is now. So let's get the capture technology where it needs to be and then prove the "Gen" part quickly.
By Henry Henderson