FutureGen and ‘Clean’ Coal

The Bush Administration and its foot soldiers, the domestic utility companies, are working on two fronts to transition our great nation to future fuels. On one hand, we have a grudging (and still rare) integration of modern pollution controls at aging power plants. Heck, we don’t even get modern technology in our new plants.

TXU’s explosion of planned new coal plants for the state is far from as clean as it could and should be. For that reason we have a flurry of political activity. All of the Texas gubernatorial candidates are battering and frying Goodhair Perry for putting the plants on a fast track last year. Mayors from Dallas, Arlington and – yes – Houston have since launched peace missions into the utility fold, walking away last week with a deal to reduce allowable mercury emissions.

Such emissions are known to cause brain damage in children and are thought to be responsible for the dumbing down of past generations (as demonstrated by the success of “Friends” and Brittany Spears).

The second front on which the power brokers work is recycling Really Bad Ideas and, at times, turning out a Questionably Good One. Examples of each are expected to start churning out power in a dozen years or so. So grandmas facing grid meltdown during this hottest year on record, hang in there a little longer…

Down in South Texas, a new pair of nuclear plants is expected to go online in 2014. Here we have no real advances. The original two plants at Wadsworth’s South Texas Project began as a $1 billion project but finished for over six times that amount. Then came the leaks that knocked it on and off grid ever since. Of course, with intensifying hurricanes on the agenda, it’s nice to know that a complete rupture at South Texas Project would limit fatalities to a mere 25-mile radius, spreading more slowly through thyroids across the region for thousands of years beyond that. A brilliant gamble.

Meanwhile, over the rainbow stands “FutureGen.” No, this isn’t a rehydrated and reconditioned Jennifer Aniston, you slobs. FutureGen is the federally subsidized vision for “clean” coal power and hydrogen production. Four sites are being kicked around, two of which are in Texas. The most recent selection led to cheering in Odessa, which in itself doesn’t really mean much, considering West Texas governments actually scrap for new jails and waste dumps as forms of economic development.

FutureGen dates back to 2003, when Bush first announced the (here’s that number again) $1 billion, 10-year demonstration project. It is expected to be the world’s first zero-emissions coal/hydrogen power plant. It is the brainchild of some of the largest coal and energy companies operating in tandem with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The trick to “clean coal” seems to be in the method by which carbon dioxide would be separated and shot into deep salt cavities underground to keep it from contributing to Global Warming. The disappointing leak at an East Texas test site made headlines in Australia, where a similar project is planned, but caused few ripples here stateside.

There are reasons to be excited about FutureGen’s potential, though making coal “clean” would require major changes in the methods by which it is extracted from the ground. These would be literally life-saving changes for those unfortunates that live in the mountains where the hillsides are leveled in “mountaintop removal,” sawed down to nothing and left to bleed toxic slurries into any available low-lying areas. Think I’m joking? Ask any Appalachian.

Still, Texas tops the nation in wind energy production and could really mine that green power, though birders should be poring over HARC’s ’05 report on bird mortality. With temperatures rising year after year, one thing we cannot afford is inaction. Water rationing of various shades is underway in almost 200 Texas cities, including Lubbock. If it makes you feel any better, we’re in good company, with more than 60 percent of U.S. is in drought stage.

And so we have a perfect opportunity to put our candidates on the spot: What is the plan to cool Texas. Not just today, but for the decades and centuries to come. Yes, I’m talking global climate now.

I know that complainers like myself are often criticized for failing to offer alternatives. Put up or shut up, so to speak. Well, those of us that have watched the skies cloud over with toxic residue as our neighbors and relatives wheeze away indoors, contract strange chemical sensitivities, and keel over from industrial-linked cancers escalating across the board, you could say we’ve put up long enough.

One of our world’s greatest living biologists, E.O. Wilson, likened the growing planetary protest movement as the Earth’s own immune response. Judging by the slow pace by which solutions are coming down the pipe, there won’t be no shuttin’ up this side of the century.

Greg Harman is a Houston-based freelance writer and the editor of EarthHouston.net, an environmental news Web site focusing the Energy City and the entire South Coast.

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