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For those journalists who have been monitoring “clean coal” technology over the last few years, it was no surprise to hear that the U.S. Department of Energy has canceled its so-called FutureGen plant, which was to burn coal to produce electricity and then sock away the resulting climate change-causing carbon dioxide emissions underground. (For the news reports, just Google News: clean coal) Although many experts believe that truly clean coal-fired power plants, coupled with carbon capture and storage systems, offer one of the best hopes of keeping global greenhouse warming at bay during the next few decades (For more information, see two SciAm articles: “What to Do about Coal"; September 2006; by David G. Hawkins, Daniel A. Lashof and Robert H. Williams; and “Can We Bury Global Warming?”; July 2005; by Robert H. Socolow), there was always a sneaking suspicion that the government wasn’t completely serious about making the large investments necessary to make the new concept really work. Environmentalists had meanwhile complained that the estimated $1.8-billion FutureGen effort was a mere payoff for the politically connected coal industry, and one heard rising rumors that the costs of the project were ballooning out of control. Now the DOE says that it will instead fund “multiple” projects aimed at commercializing integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal plants by 2015.  You have to wonder whether such a decentralized effort, coming on the heels of the terminated project, will really yield any useful fruit in the long run. For no matter where you stand regarding climate change, the coal industry and our future energy needs, the U.S. must soon make progress on IGCC and carbon sequestration technology to have any chance of successfully meeting the minimum international goals for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. The DOE, the energy industry and the American people have to bite the bullet and spend what’s necessary to make it happen here and, more importantly, in the rest of the world, where coal combustion is spiking.  

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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