MATTOON – The proposed $1.8 billion FutureGen clean coal power plant scheduled to be built in Mattoon may not be built after all, and politicians are claiming it's a victim of partisan politics.
Department of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told much of the Illinois congressional delegation Tuesday morning that his department plans to disband the FutureGen Alliance and move in a different direction.
The FutureGen Alliance was a combined effort among 13 energy companies from around the world and the Department of Energy.
"The Department of Energy has turned its back on us," U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, told The News-Gazette. "This is like changing the rules after the final score has been posted on the scoreboard. To me, Secretary Bodman's response this morning was a slap in the face.
"This is the worst form of bureaucratic arrogance and insensitivity that I have seen in my 40 years in politics."
Sen. Dick Durbin,D-Ill., echoed Johnson's anger and frustration, saying the Illinois delegation will take the fight directly to the president.
"In 25 years on Capitol Hill, I have never witnessed such a cruel deception," Durbin said in a written release. "For five years, the Department of Energy has urged our state and others to pursue, at great expense and sacrifice, this critically important energy project.
"When the city of Mattoon was chosen over possible locations in Texas, the secretary of energy set out to kill FutureGen," Durbin said.
Johnson suspects the rejection of the Texas sites is what brought the alliance to its end.
"Most people would observe it to be an incredible coincidence to have this project be in the works for five years only to see it suddenly go south within days after Texas was no longer the site," Johnson said.
"The Department of Energy created the alliance and came up with a well-devised plan for clean coal use. We as a state went to the ends of the earth to do everything to make sure we reached our objectives. I've never seen a decision more outrageous than this one is," Johnson said Tuesday evening.
Johnson and Durbin hoped to talk to President Bush to persuade the administration to change its mind.
A senior geologist who worked in the development of FutureGen also expressed surprise and disappointment.
"I think we have yet to hear the final word from the Department of Energy," geologist Robert Finley said. "There are a lot of folks who are going to work very hard to change the department's position."
A shadow has been hanging over the FutureGen Alliance since Mattoon was selected Dec. 18 over Tuscola and the Texas cities of Odessa and Jewett.
On the same day that the alliance chose Mattoon, Jack Slutz, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy, called for restructuring the current agreement between the federal government and the alliance. Slutz said that because clean coal technology is so important, the public deserves to get the best technology in the most cost-efficient way. Restructuring was the answer, he said.
Two weeks ago, the alliance proposed funding a larger portion of FutureGen's costs.
FutureGen Chief Executive Officer Michael J. Mudd sent a letter to Energy Department Undersecretary C.H. "Bud" Albright Jr. on Jan. 11, offering to drop the portion of the project Energy would be responsible for from $1.33 billion to $800 million, with developers paying for the rest of the project.
In Mattoon, Angela Griffin, president of Coles Together, the coalition of Mattoon businesses and government leaders who worked to get FutureGen, said she hoped the energy department would reconsider.
"We're not giving up the fight to make FutureGen a reality in Illinois," Griffin said. "We hope the wisdom of the experts to choose to build FutureGen in Mattoon prevails."
State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, was shocked by Tuesday's announcement.
"I'm at a loss for words, and I'm never at a loss for words," Rose said. "You cannot print in a family newspaper what I want to say right now.
"I will continue to work with our congressional delegation as we continue to fight for what is right."
Tuscola Economic Development Inc. Executive Director Brian Moody, who led efforts to bring FutureGen to Tuscola, said the decision was "a complete shock to me. I think it is unfortunate the Department of Energy is taking us down this road when significant dollars have been spent at the local and state level.
"Both in Tuscola and in Mattoon there were significant expenses in the final months of the project that could have been avoided if we had known what the energy secretary was going to do," Moody said. "I would expect the governor's office of coal development to fight for this project. I know the alliance is very committed to moving forward. It's the right thing to do."
Griffin noted that President Bush stressed the development of clean coal technology in his State of the Union address on Monday night.
Johnson also noted the president's speech. "This was the Department of Energy's initiative, undertaken at the president's directive in 2003, with the goal of clean-coal energy that was underscored again Monday night in the president's State of the Union address," Johnson said. "Mattoon responded with all the right answers, every step of the way."
Griffin said she hopes the private companies that are part of the alliance will keep their commitment to the project.
Rose said FutureGen was the one thing that went right in state government in a year of much political friction.
"The Speaker of the House deserves a great deal of credit. The governor deserves a lot of credit. Everyone came together to push for this project," Rose said. "This was the one bright spot for Illinois we could hang our hats on, and then this happens."
FutureGen was expected to become the cleanest fossil fuel-fired power plant in the world.
FutureGen planned to employ coal gasification (a method to convert coal into gas) already used at power plants in Terre Haute, Ind., and Tampa, Fla.
But instead of sending the resulting carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, causing environmental concerns, FutureGen would have piped the carbon dioxide a mile beneath the Earth's surface, where the gas would naturally dissipate over hundreds of years.
The plant was expected to have a major impact on Mattoon's economy. Coles County was expected to receive 2,500 direct or indirect new construction jobs and another 500 permanent jobs related to the power plant.