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A Huge New Coal Plant -- Your Tax Dollars at Work

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Mattoon, Illinois, has just become the single most important spot on the globe for Big Coal. There a consortium of mining companies and electric utility companies are putting American tax dollars to work. Building a commercial coal-burning plant that is to have the latest in clean tech. To remain almost carbon neutral the FutureGen plant will use carbon dioxide sequestration. They're going to pump some of that CO2 underground and try to keep it there.

Current cost estimates? The plant should cost upwards of $1.5 billion. However, three-fourths of that money is coming from federal subsidies and some Congresspersons are beginning to question the cost and scope. The DOE itself is calling for a cost "reassessment." Yet so strong is the attraction of coal-burning to politicians from coal-producing states that is not likely the plans will be dumped at this point. And if this plant works Big Coal sees it as proof they can out-do nuclear energy as the good guys in the move to lower greenhouse gas emissions and perhaps reduce global warming. So remember, even though you're picking up most of the tab, Big Coal wants to be your friend.

The stated goal is to have the plant running by 2012. If this prototype's a technical and commercial success, the idea is for the utilities to borrow the cleaner coal-burning technology and spread it around the world.

If you want a look inside the science and engineering proposed for this plant, here's an analysis from Scientific American.

Here's how they describe the plans to pump the CO2 underground for permanent storage:
"Some of the power generated would be used to compress the CO2 and pump it deep underground to be permanently stored in saline aquifers. 'It will never come out,' says geologist Susan Hovorka of the University of Texas at Austin, who has been conducting carbon sequestration feasibility experiments. 'It's moving through the tiny pores between the sand grains and it gets smeared, like grease on a tie'."

Hovorka's initial experiments at an oil field northeast of Houston have shown that the CO2 behaves as expected, remaining trapped in the geologic formation. But it does have impacts, such as leaching out minerals in the rocks and corroding well equipment. 'If you put undiluted weak acid into your plumbing, it will eat holes in it," Hovorka notes. "We observed that and it's not unexpected."

Involved in the FutureGen Alliance along with the U.S. Department of Energy are some of the globe's biggest mining and utility companies. E.On of Germany is a major electricity generator. BHPBilliton and Xstrata of Australia. Then there's China's largest coal-burning utility, the China Huaneng Group. Some familiar American corporate names are on the roster as well: Peabody, Rio Tinto US, American Electric Power. On behalf of the FutureGen Alliance, taxpayers of America, a big kiss and a handshake all around. You keep the lights burning and FutureGen will get to burning the coal.

Mattoon, Illinois currently has under 20,000 residents. Previously the small city in southeastern Illinois may have been best known, if it was known at all, for its Soybean Museum.