Tuesday, August 31, 2010
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FutureGen Alliance may pull out of clean coal project

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[August 31, 2010]  CHICAGO -- A multibillion-dollar effort to develop clean coal technology in Illinois could be in jeopardy after federal officials changed the nature of the program.

Illinois Statehouse News has learned that board members from the FutureGen Alliance, a multinational coalition of energy companies, will meet Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to decide if it will remain partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a clean coal plant in Illinois.

"When the Department of Energy decided to switch plans, it caused all of the pieces (of the alliance) to be re-evaluated," said Marcelyn Love, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. "They will decide whether they will remain (with the federal government)."

Conflict arose earlier this month when Department of Energy officials decided to turn what was supposed to be a new clean coal facility in Mattoon into a waste repository. Mattoon officials balked at the deal.

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"There was no head's up," said Angela Griffin of Coles Together, which had been helping Mattoon coordinate the deal.

The department did not consult with local officials, who spent millions conducting environmental reviews and other measures to attract the project, before making its decision. Mattoon Mayor Tim Gover said he was not contacted once by federal authorities to discuss the plans.

"I could have told them that this was unacceptable," he said. "It would have been helpful, preferable, if we had a little advanced notice."

Mattoon's rejection of the department's policy shift led to the relocation of the project to Meredosia, a town of 1,000 in central Illinois. The change in locales may not have proved as damaging as the government's selection of a company outside of the FutureGen Alliance to spearhead the project.

The department will spend billions retrofitting an oil fire unit at the Meredosia Power Plant to produce clean coal. Ameren, which owns the plant, began talks with the government earlier in the summer to retrofit the plant. Details about when the project will begin remain ambiguous, however.

"We don't even have a contract," said Susan Gallagher with Ameren Illinois. "We're in a silent period."

Local officials are enduring some silence of their own.

"They didn't fill us in on a lot of the details," said Kenneth Scott, mayor of Meredosia. "They're hoping to have the details by the end of September."

Scott said he received a call from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's office letting him know of the department's decision on Aug. 5 -- the same day officials in Mattoon discovered the change of plans.

"It was the first I heard of (FutureGen)," he said.

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The Department of Energy is moving forward with its plans, as scheduled.

"As we stated on Aug. 5, we are planning to award $1 billion in Recovery Act funding to the FutureGen Alliance, Ameren Energy Resources, Babcock & Wilcox, and Air Liquide Process & Construction Inc. for the FutureGen 2.0 project," department spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said.

While the money may be flowing in as scheduled, progress has been delayed yet again.

"It's dead in the water," said Phil Bloomer, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill.

The plant was supposed to be up and running by 2012. Officials now say the project will not break ground until that date.

Gallagher said if Ameren reaches a deal with the department, there will be a six-month planning period to review engineering, design and cost of the project. She says the company can bypass the environmental review process that Mattoon spent 18 months conducting.

The FutureGen project has been plagued by delays amid disorientation. Two companies and the Australian government abandoned the alliance since President Barack Obama reversed a Bush administration decision to halt the project. A withdrawal of private support for the program could prove devastating for the future of clean coal in Illinois.

"We were ready to break ground in days, if not weeks," said Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association. "To have the plug pulled again ... to switch projects is tough."

Calls to FutureGen board members were not immediately returned.

[Illinois Statehouse News; By BILL McMORRIS]

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