THE BEST way to cut down on the greenhouse gases produced by power generation is to reduce the nation's appetite for electricity. Renewable energy sources like wind power and biomass have a helpful role to play. Yet, dependable base sources will remain necessary, and coal-fired plants will probably be part of the mix for a long time. Minimizing the impact of such plants is vital. That is why it is so discouraging that the Bush administration pulled the plug on a pilot project for using coal to produce power without carbon dioxide emissions.
For five years, the US Department of Energy, coal and power companies, and several foreign countries, including China, have been partners in developing a plant in Mattoon, Ill., that would convert coal to gas, allowing its carbon dioxide to be captured and stored underground. The government had chosen the Illinois site because it is near coal mines, rail lines, and underground formations well suited to hold the greenhouse gas.
China's participation in FutureGen, as the project was called, has been crucial because both it and the United States have enormous coal deposits. In the last six months of 2007, China's power generation grew by 18 percent, most of it coal-fired. Worldwide, coal fuels 40 percent of all power generation.
The Department of Energy said it withdrew its 75 percent support from FutureGen last month because its cost had almost doubled, from $1 billion to $1.8 billion. Some have suggested the real motive might have been lingering opposition to the choice of Mattoon by administration officials from Texas, which lost out in the selection process. A former aide to a Texas congressman who is now an Energy Department official, C.H. "Bud" Albright, has said the department axed FutureGen because it was not interested in "building Disneyland in some swamp in Illinois."
Congress should call on the Government Accountability Office to investigate how the department made its decision to pull out of a project it had once hailed as key to producing clean power with coal.
Private industry would have an incentive to invest in projects like FutureGen without government help if Congress cracked down on emissions with a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. But Congress has too many members from states dependent on coal mining or coal power to pass such a bill absent concrete proof that coal gasification and carbon storage are a realistic alternative to conventional coal combustion.
FutureGen could have provided that proof. Critics have said it was too small to be a perfect test, but it was a start. Now five years of work have come to a dead end, and the country and the world are not much closer to knowing if coal, an abundant fossil fuel, can be part of the climate change solution and not just the climate change problem.