Is the FutureGen ‘Clean Coal’ Project Back in the Stimulus Bill?

President Obama has been a longtime supporter of “clean coal,” the still-illusory concept of coal-fired power plants that can capture and store the carbon emissions that they generate.

The environmental movement tends to view “clean coal” with skepticism at best and derision at worst — and few projects epitomize the contentious debate over clean coal more than FutureGen, the $1.8 billion dollar plant slated to be built in the downstate town of Mattoon, Illinois.The state’s congressional delegation, including a pre-election Sen. Obama, has been pressing to restore government aid to FutureGen since the Bush administration abruptly cut off money for the project last year, citing excessive construction costs.

When Obama’s energy secretary nominee met with Illinois lawmakers on FutureGen and the company put together a new funding proposal, it looked like a sign that the stimulus bill would include cash to put the coal plant back on track.

But FutureGen was nowhere in the House stimulus bill. According to Politico, that move was intended to signify the White House’s serious intention to avoid earmarks … especially earmarks that could be spun as benefiting the president’s home state.

Given the report of FutureGen’s demise, then, it was curious to see this line in the Senate stimulus:

Provided, That $2,000,000,000 is available for one or more near zero emissions powerplant(s);

Aside from the inadvertent humor in the idea of “near zero emissions,” that $2 billion appropriation would appear to be a FutureGen reference. The Illinois facility is often described as the world’s first “near zero emissions” plant.

Late Update: A spokeswoman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), a longtime FutureGen supporter and Appropriations Committee member, says that the $2 billion is “for any number of carbon capture projects” and not intended for FutureGen. Still, the fact that FutureGen’s name isn’t attached to the money doesn’t meant that the project would not be eligible for it. We’re looking into whether the Energy Department has any other project in the pipeline that would qualify for the “near zero emissions” funding.

Late Late Update: FutureGen would indeed be eligible for the $2 billion, a spokesman for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) says via e-mail: “How it will be spent will be determined by the Department of Energy. Future Gen would only be one of the options.”