In a stunning new report [PDF], two House Committees demonstrate that the Bush administration was never serious about FutureGen NeverGen, the “centerpiece” of its effort to develop “clean coal” technology. Turns out centerpieces are largely decorative.

Climate Progress has previously documented that the coal industry itself has never taken seriously the development of the one technology that could save the industry from extinction in the face of humanity’s urgent need slash CO2 emissions sharply and avoid its own self-destruction [see here].

Now we learn the same was true of the Bush Administration. We learn that they killed FutureGen even after Department of Energy staff explained the implications: “affordable coal fueled CCS plants would be delayed at least 10 years” deferring “widespread deployment of CCS” until after 2030.

That means the whole “clean coal” or carbon capture and storage (CCS) effort of the past decade was an intentional fraud by all parties concerned — and nobody should be allowed to use the absence of demonstrated CCS technology today as an excuse for weakening near-term CO2 targets or for giving the coal industry another decade to (fatally) delay serious climate action.

As the shocking House press release reveals:

In an effort to kill the FutureGen project, top officials at the Department of Energy knowingly used inaccurate project cost figures and promoted an alternative plan that career staff repeatedly warned them would not work, according to a majority staff report to Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC).

FutureGen was a highly-touted initiative announced by President George W. Bush in February of 2003 to demonstrate that coal could be changed from an environmentally challenging energy resource into an environmentally benign one by sequestering carbon dioxide emissions and eliminating other pollutants…. It would have been the first plant of this type in the world. But in January of 2008, former Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman pulled the plug on the project, reconfiguring it as a privately funded initiative with limited government subsidies. To date, nothing has come of this new initiative.

To knowingly abandon a program that held out the hope of making a real impact in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases from coal in favor of another program that held out no hope at all-not commercially and not to provide technological innovation to capture and sequester carbon-is inexcusable,” said Gordon. “All we have to show for ‘Plan B’ is lost time and an abandoned global leadership role.”

“DOE officials knew that they were manipulating the numbers, and that the ‘restructured’ FutureGen would not accomplish what had been planned, but they went ahead anyway,” said Subcommittee Chairman Miller. “In the process, they lost the participation of China and India, which are some of the largest users of coal in the world. The damage to U.S. leadership on “clean coal” technology, and climate change generally, cannot be overstated.

I had thought, like many others, that the Bush administration was simply incompetent in its management of the program (see here). But this wasn’t benign neglect, it was malign neglect.

The entire report [PDF] is worth reading if you can stomach the Administration’s audacity (of hopelessness), but let me pull out some of the highlights:

In retrospect, FutureGen appears to have been nothing more than a public relations ploy for Bush Administration officials to make it appear to the public and the world that the United States was doing something to address global warming despite its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. When worldwide construction costs went up across the board, neither the White House nor DOE was willing to make the additional financial commitment necessary to keep the project going.

The same can be said of the coal industry.

Secretary Bodman, in particular, strongly disliked FutureGen, and neither President Bush nor any of his White House staff did anything to stop Bodman from killing the original project or restructuring it in a way that was guaranteed to fail. As an assistant to Undersecretary Bud Albright put it during a discussion of restructuring FutureGen:

“[E]veryone is conveniently forgetting that we’re here b/c [because] S-1 [Secretary Bodman] wants to kill FG as its [sic] currently contemplated with or without a Plan B.”

Hard to believe that the very same month this statment was made, “administration officials were calling it a ‘centerpiece‘ of their strategy for clean coal technologies” (see here).

Bodman’s primary stated reason for killing the original FutureGen plan was that the cost had doubled to $1.8 billion. That was false, and an inexcusable error for the head of a federal agency. Bodman and his staff obtained that number by comparing the cost estimate of $952 million in constant FY 2004 dollars with the “as spent” dollars — which is always higher because it includes normal inflation and other cost increases — that all federal agencies use when estimating the actual cost of multi-year projects such as FutureGen. The Office of Fossil Energy attempted numerous times to explain to DOE’s policy staff the difference between these two numbers, but as Under Secretary Bud Albright’s chief of staff cavalierly explained while preparing talking points for Bodman, “this is not a legal document, it is a communications document. As for whether the escalation costs after 2004 were expected or not, why does that even matter?

 

It is difficult to believe that anyone working at the top levels of DOE or the White House, both of which deal with many multi-year clean-up, research and defense projects — particularly someone with Bodman’s business background — did not know the difference between “constant” and “as spent” dollars or even ask how the $1.8 billion figure was obtained. But there is no evidence that anyone asked that basic question.

And it must be added that anybody with even the most basic understanding of what was happening in the energy industry — which presumably includes the secretary of energy and his staff — knew commodity and power plant costs were soaring across the board (see here). So the escalation costs were entirely due to inflation and industry-wide trends.

There is no escape from the fact that if you want to demonstrate a large new coal plant with carbon capture and storage, it is going to cost you a bundle of money. If you actually cared about the future of the coal industry — which obviously neither the industry nor the Bush administration really did — you have to spend real money.

In 2007, DOE’s career staff wrote an analysis that concluded:

Given the above delays [following analysis of how Plan B would s
low technology development and deployment], it is reasonable to assume that proceeding with “Plan B” and without FutureGen, the availability of affordable coal fueled CCS plants would be delayed at least 10 years and will not allow widespread deployment of CCS until near 2040. Affordable CCS technologies will not be available in time to meet the expected turnover of the existing fleet of coal power plants in the US, nor for incorporation into the development of the world’s massive coal resources in countries such as China and India.

Based on the DOE Climate Change Task Force analysis, which was the basis for the FY09 DOE budget request, a delay of ten years in the deployment of fossil technology with CCS would result in a cumulative loss of emission reductions of about 22 billion tons CO2 through 2100 in the U.S. To put this into perspective, current U.S. total annual CO2 emissions are 6 billion tons; U.S. annual CO2 emissions from coal are 2 billion tons. The DOE Task Force further estimated that CCS benefits from the proposed initiative for the rest of the world were about 6 times the U.S. benefits, or on the order of 150 billion tons CO2 through 2100 worldwide that would not be avoided if “Plan B” were chosen.

The coal industry, which was not terribly interested in Plan A, had no interest whatsoever in Plan B.

The anemic response by industry to the competition to participate in the new FutureGen proved in a real world demonstration how wrong Bodman and his deputies were. There were four responses of which two were ineligible and two were incomplete. None proposed to construct the IGCC/CCS, coal-based, zero-emission electricity and hydrogen producing power plant that had been promised by Secretary Bodman in January of 2008.

The bottom line is that the only hope for the coal industry (at least in a world that is itself not suicidal) is a very well-funded effort to demonstrate and deploy carbon capture and storage. This will take at least 10-years from the time the industry (and government) gets serious — and probably much longer (see here). That was true ten years ago when the coal industry — and the Bush Administration — opposed Kyoto saying more time was needed to develop new technology.

The time to act is now.

Thankfully the technologies to act with are commercial today or very soon will be (see here) — including one that is much more cost-effective than CCS ever will be for reducing coal power plant emissions immediately (see here).

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.