Remember FutureGen?

American press silent while Oz launches first carbon storage plant

It was a week of firsts, but not in the U.S. In Canada, British Columbia announced “pioneering” cap-and-trade legislation yesterday, and on Monday, Australia opened the southern hemisphere’s first, and the world’s largest, carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration plant.

The two strategies-one political/economic in nature, the other technological-are both designed to cut greenhouse gases and thereby mitigate global warming. Australia’s CCS project is perhaps the more significant, however, not only because it is one of the things that the energy industry will use to meet cap-and-trade goals, but also because proving that large-scale “clean” coal technology works is, for the time being, the linchpin to maintaining a steady supply of affordable energy while reducing its environmental impact. As the Earth Institute’s Jeffrey Sachs, who also writes Scientific American’s monthly Sustainable Developments column, reiterated at the 2008 State of the Planet conference in New York last week, the validity of the projection that in the long run the cost of action will be less than inaction rests on the assumption that CCS is viable.

It was no surprise, then, to see a flood of coverage in the wake of the Australian power plant’s Monday opening. Google News counts some two hundred print, TV, radio, and Web pieces.

Australia, which toed the skeptical, do-nothing Bush administration line, has come around forcefully on global warming. Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd made addressing climate change a central part of his successful campaign to unseat John Howard, the longtime incumbent prime minister, in November. One of Rudd’s first acts in office was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. In the U.S. the protocol might be a lost cause, but now that the Aussies have opened their CCS plant near Melbourne, American journalists might begin to wonder what has happened to similar plans here. The Great Beyond, the journal Nature’s science news tracker, had a pithy roundup of articles that followed Monday’s opening. It was also smart enough to mention that “soaring costs have prompted the US to junk plans for its FutureGen clean coal power plant, and the down-under demo project is the most massive noncommercial carbon burial site to make it off the drawing board.”

The U.S. Department of Energy, which was funding the bulk of FutureGen, effectively scrapped the project for what would have been the world’s first “zero emissions” power plant in January after a construction site in Mattoon, Illinois, had already been picked and groundbreaking seemed imminent. The about-face drew fairly widespread coverage at the time, but despite the critical (and predictable) decision to indefinitely delay a vital technology, the national media have seemingly lost interest in asking what’s next.

This week, the thirteen-member FutureGen Alliance, which is partnering with the DOE to develop the project and comprises U.S. utilities and coal producers, met in Washington, D.C., to discuss getting back on track. The meeting, perhaps, wasn’t terribly newsworthy in and of itself, but it was (or should have been) the perfect jumping off point for journalists to revive their own efforts to unpack just what is going on with this multi-billion dollar technology. American journalism’s only saving grace on this front was a few small newspapers, located around possible FutureGen sites, which reported the alliance’s meeting. The Journal Gazette-Times Courier in Mattoon, for instance, noted that it was “the first meeting for the board since it came to Mattoon in early February to reaffirm its commitment to building a coal-fired electrical plant,” and that, “The Illinois congressional delegation and state leaders have been working to reverse the decision to end federal support for the FutureGen project.” At the national level this week, The Associated Press had only the briefest of briefs, which announced that the DOE “will solicit bids sometime this spring for its plan to restructure the FutureGen clean-coal project,” but completely ignored the alliance’s meeting.

The U.S.-government, industry, and the public-cannot afford to delay, year after year, the development of carbon capture and storage technology. Ultimately, environmentalists would like to get beyond fossil fuels entirely by replacing them with wind, solar, wave, and geothermal energy, but for now, ditching coal and maintaining affordable electricity at the same time seems virtually impossible. Until that changes, journalists must use events like the opening of Australia’s CCS plant and FutureGen Alliance meeting to force government and industry to explain what is happening with one of our most vital (and expensive) technological experiments.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.