Top officials at the Department of Energy knowingly used inaccurate numbers to estimate the cost of a clean coal program and then used the misleading figures as an excuse to ax the project last year, according to a congressional report released Wednesday.
The FutureGen project, a highly publicized initiative announced in 2003 by President George W. Bush, was intended to speed the commercial deployment of carbon capture and storage technology, which lowers carbon emissions by taking them out of coal-fire power plants' emissions streams and storing them underground.
Under FutureGen's original objective, the Department of Energy and its industry partners would have constructed a 275-megawatt power plant that combined carbon capture with another low-emissions technology, integrated gasification combined cycle.
However, in January 2008 Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said estimated costs for the project had nearly doubled. The department restructured the program, canceling the plan for the new power plant.
U.S. representatives have been calling foul play since then, and now they have evidence to back their claims.
According to a report from the House Committee on Science and Technology and another by the Government Accountability Office, Energy officials compared two incompatible sets of numbers to arrive at their cost conclusion; one set was in 2004 dollars, and the other was inflated through 2017.
"DOE officials knew that they were manipulating the numbers," said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., chairman of the committee that produced the report.
If the math had been done correctly, it would have shown a smaller increase, from $1 billion to $1.3 billion, not the $1.8 billion DOE officials claimed, said Mark Gaffigan, director of the Natural Resources and Environment Team at the Government Accountability Office.
"DOE's decision to restructure FutureGen was not well explained," said Gaffigan at a hearing Wednesday in the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.
Some policymakers think cost had nothing to do with the department's decision, including Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill.
"It was not cost … it was politics," Costello said.
Four sites were selected as finalists to host the clean-coal plant, two in Illinois and two in Texas. The sites in President Bush's home state were passed over for one in Mattoon, Ill.
"It was then that the administration decided to pull back on the project," Costello said. "We know what the decision was based on."
The sudden cancellation of the project left several of the project's partners with lighter wallets, including the state of Illinois.
"Illinois spent several millions of dollars in state money (on the project)," said Robert Finley, director of the Energy and Earth Resources Center at the Illinois State Geological Survey. "Almost $1 million was spent since the project has canceled alone, to demonstrate the viability of the (Mattoon) site."
All together, the Department of Energy and its partners from the coal and electricity sectors invested $50 million, with 74 percent of that coming from the government and 26 percent from industry.
A number of foreign countries also put money into FutureGen, and the department's decision has strained cooperation on energy issues, said Miller.
The department has "lost the participation of China and India, which are some of the largest users of coal in the world," he said. "The damage to U.S. leadership on clean-coal technology, and climate change generally, cannot be overstated."
An Energy official at Wednesday's hearing agreed the new program has a very different focus than the old one.
"The original FutureGen was to push the stick forward on gasification," said Victor Der, acting assistant secretary. "Restructured FutureGen looks at putting technologies that we have today on existing commercial platforms."
Both are important, Der said, and it was a "judgment call" to go with the new program.
However, many policymakers say the restructured program is a step backward, including Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.
"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."
The new program has received only four applications for power plants under the program, none of which uses Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle.
There's a new administration in the White House, though, and this time the president's home state hosts the winning site.
As a result, many groups are hopeful the original project will be brought back, including the FutureGen Alliance, a group of 11 coal and electric utility companies formed to partner with the Department of Energy on building the Illinois plant.
"The Alliance is still very much together and committed to the Mattoon site," Lawrence Pacheco, the Alliance's spokesman, told United Press International. "The project is shovel ready."
New Energy Secretary Steven Chu also appears open to working on the Mattoon plant.
"He believes it has merits," Stephanie Mueller, Department of Energy spokeswoman, told UPI. "He's looking at the possibilities and hopes to come to a decision soon."