WASHINGTON – Last week's announcement that Coles County would have a reduced role in the FutureGen energy project has opened a major rift between U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana.
Johnson issued a statement Tuesday asserting that Durbin had "insulted" the people of Coles County with his handling of the revisions to the FutureGen project, originally slated to be centered entirely in Mattoon.
The original FutureGen plan included a high-tech coal gasification power plant in Mattoon. The revised FutureGen plan makes use of a 64-year-old coal-fired power plant in Meredosia, 150 miles west of Mattoon, instead of a new powerhouse. Carbon dioxide emissions from that plant would be moved by pipeline to Mattoon. Most of the money spent on FutureGen 2.0 would go to Meredosia, not to Mattoon.
A Durbin spokesman responded with even more explosive accusations, claiming that Johnson last week signed off on major revisions to FutureGen, then changed his mind, and that the congressman threw Energy Department officials out of his Washington, D.C., office on Tuesday, using expletives in doing so.
Phil Bloomer, a spokesman for Johnson, disputed the first charges but acknowledged that Johnson had dismissed several DOE staff members from his office Tuesday.
"It is true that Tim asked these people to leave and that he wanted to speak to (Assistant Secretary James) Markowsky personally," Bloomer said, explaining that other DOE staff had asked to be included. "Was the congressman mad? Darn right he was mad. But I've been working for him for 5 1/2 years and I've never heard him swear."
The other dispute centers around the events of last Thursday, when Durbin announced significant changes to the original FutureGen plan.
Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Durbin, said Energy Secretary Steven Chu had personally called Johnson earlier Thursday to inform him of the revisions to FutureGen.
"Congressman Johnson's reaction at the end of that call was, 'Well this is a little bit different but I think it's going to be a good thing for Illinois and for my area,'" according to Shoemaker. "In fact he was so pleased that he asked to be included on our press release.
"Sometime after that he changed his mind."
Bloomer said he was not aware that Chu had called Johnson to inform him of the FutureGen changes.
"Tim was aghast at this from the beginning," Bloomer insisted. "Everybody – Coles County, Mattoon, Tim – they dropped all of this on us like a ton of bricks out of the blue. It took a little while to fully digest what they were saying. Once we fully comprehended what they were saying it became clear that everybody had been duped."
Shoemaker called Johnson's prepared remarks Tuesday "really disappointing."
"With his actions today he has stooped to a new low. Questioning Sen. Durbin's motives or integrity is beyond the pale. I will tell you that Congressman Johnson's staff was in on this project every step of the way," Shoemaker said.
In his statement Tuesday, Johnson hit Durbin for keeping Coles County officials in the dark about the evolution of FutureGen.
"Sen. Durbin, we now know, has been aware of the Department of Energy's interest in reconfiguring this project for a matter of months. But it wasn't until last Thursday that he informed the people most affected," Johnson said in a prepared statement. "Now he has insulted them a second time within a matter of days by giving them until the end of the week to decide whether to proceed."
Durbin had issued a letter Monday to Angela Griffin, president of the Coles Together economic development group, asking it to decide by the end of this week if it still wanted to be involved in FutureGen.
"The reason for that," Shoemaker said Tuesday, "is that the stimulus funding that is the source of the billion dollars for FutureGen has to be obligated, meaning formally committed to spending that money, by the DOE by Sept. 1.
"We hope they don't but if Mattoon and Coles Together decide that this isn't in their best, long-term interest, then we're only going to have a couple weeks to find another site, another community and so all that work. This isn't a deadline that Durbin imposed."
But Johnson said Coles County officials need "time to digest this abrupt change in direction. There are many questions to be answered and I intend to pursue those with the Department of Energy."
The congressman also released the contents of a letter to Chu, dated Tuesday, in which he asked eight questions about the Energy Department's changes to the original FutureGen plan.
Among Johnson's questions of Chu:
– "When did your department lose faith in FutureGen at Mattoon? FutureGen 2.0 clearly could not have been developed overnight and in our office's interactions with your department, you always stressed your support and willingness to move this project forward."
– "Why weren't the FutureGen Alliance, state of Illinois and citizens of Mattoon consulted on this drastic change in plans? Wouldn't their input have been important in any decision moving forward?"
– "What legal authority does the Department of Energy have to move FutureGen 2.0 forward? Are you going to provide the state of Illinois and citizens of Mattoon an opportunity to comment on this abrupt decision before proceeding?"
An Energy Department spokeswoman said Tuesday the agency is trying to work out arrangements to have Chu come to Illinois with Durbin to explain the FutureGen revisions.
Shoemaker said Tuesday that DOE officials came to Durbin's staff "a couple of months ago" and said the original FutureGen project "is no longer viable."
"Durbin said, 'That's not what you promised the people of Mattoon. Go back and make this viable. Tell me what the problems are. Explain in detail why this isn't going forward.'"
Shoemaker said DOE staff said the original project's cost had increased to approximately $3 billion (up from $1.5 billion), but that DOE had only $1.1 billion in stimulus funding. The FutureGen Alliance, a private business group, was to provide between $300 million and $500 million, leaving a funding gap of as much as between $1.6 billion.
In addition, Shoemaker said, the advanced coal gasification processes that the original FutureGen was supposed to incorporate were already being put to use in four other large-scale projects.
"So Durbin said we can't walk away from this project, we can't walk away from the people who put time and energy into it," Shoemaker said. "He asked, 'What are the next steps, what does the department need to do in terms of clean coal research?' They came back with a series of different things. What ultimately emerged was FutureGen 2.0, retrofitting power plants that already exist and sequestering the carbon underground."
That proposal, Shoemaker said, came from DOE about two weeks ago.
"This is not the first time the DOE has come to us and said we have a real problem here," Shoemaker said. "That's happened four or five times. In each of those times we've said that that's not acceptable."
Shoemaker said that "no one is completely, including Durbin, completely happy that we are where we are. We think that this is the best that we can do."
State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Charleston, whose legislative district includes Mattoon, said "the constituent sentiment is overwhelmingly against" FutureGen 2.0, but that he would make no recommendation whether to continue to pursue the project or to give up on it.
"All they can do is gather all the information they can and hope for an extension deadline, and if they don't give you an extension deadline then you have to squeeze the trigger by the end of the week. What's really troublesome here is the lack of information," Righter said.
Meanwhile, Brian Moody, executive director of the Tuscola Economic Development Inc., said Tuesday it was too early to say whether the Douglas County community would be interested in pursuing FutureGen 2.0 if Mattoon drops out.
"No one has called from the state or the Department of Energy and said, 'Are you interested in this?'" said Moody. "We'll definitely be having some discussion about this (next week). But I can't say that my board would decide to go after this if Mattoon drops out."
Tuscola was one of the finalists for the original FutureGen plant before Mattoon was chosen. The other two were in Texas.