The push is on for 'clean coal'

  • Proposed coal-fired plants in Magic Valley

    Diane Sylvain
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Magic Valley Uprising."

Westwide, the power-plant industry has proposed building several dozen new coal-fired plants — the biggest such buildup since the 1980s. But at the same time, the industry is moving toward a new “clean coal” era, nudged by citizen uprisings like the one in Idaho’s Magic Valley, along with other, surprising forces: coal companies, the Bush administration, members of Congress, and the West’s most muscular Republican, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They all share a common goal: figuring out how to build coal plants that are less polluting than conventional plants that burn pulverized coal. The best hope is IGCC technology, which stands for “integrated gasification combined cycle.” IGCC converts coal to a “synthesis gas,” mostly hydrogen, which burns relatively cleanly in turbines. It allows companies to capture many pollutants, and an additional process can sequester carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming. (Stashing carbon dioxide underground in geologic formations is considered the most likely method of sequestration.) But there are only two IGCC plants operating now, in Indiana and Florida, and although companies have proposed building more, the technology is not yet perfected.

That’s why the Bush administration launched a public-private partnership called FutureGen in 2003. It offers financial incentives to spur research and construction of the world’s first “zero emissions” coal plant. The Department of Energy has already invested $45 million in FutureGen, and the administration promises to add more than $550 million within a few years. Coal giants Peabody and Kennecott, along with China’s biggest coal-plant utility, have joined FutureGen, promising more than $200 million. India kicked in $10 million in April. FutureGen aims to select a U.S. site for its first plant later this year, and have it up and running by 2012.

Congress provided a boost to clean-coal technology with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which offers billions more in incentives. Western states and companies are putting together proposals to get subsidies, an effort that the Western Governors’ Association supports.

Where does Schwarzenegger fit in? “I call him the ‘Coal-Plant Terminator,’ ” says Jon Wellinghoff, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates, a Colorado-based environmental law firm that is pushing for IGCC technology.

Schwarzenegger issued an executive order in June 2005, saying that California utilities must stop buying electricity from power plants that contribute to global warming. California uses 20 percent of the West’s electricity, so the governor’s ultimatum effectively pressures the industry to shift to IGCC and carbon sequestration. The loss of California customers likely figured in Sempra’s decision not to build a conventional merchant plant in Idaho. The Nevada Clean Energy Coalition, which fought off a similar Sempra proposal this year, considers Schwarzenegger a de facto ally.

This combination of forces will kill all but a handful of the West’s proposed coal plants, because most would burn pulverized coal, says John Barth, director of the Western Clean Energy Campaign. And at least two IGCC proposals are already edging toward reality in the West, one near Longview, Wash., and the other outside Pocatello, Idaho.

But even a clean-coal plant rubs some communities the wrong way. Pocatello, for example, is trying to move beyond heavy industry, says Mayor Roger Chase. He’s courting tech companies and medical facilities, and says an IGCC plant “would be bad for us, image-wise.”

Idaho’s two-year moratorium only applies to conventional coal plants, so the Pocatello IGCC proposal, pushed by a subsidiary of a New England company, is still alive.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...