Dick Durbin Tries To Convince Obama To Bring Home the Bacon

by William Yeatman on January 8, 2009

Illinois Senator yesterday met with Dr. Stephen Chu, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to head the Department of Energy, to try to win the Obama administration's support for the FutureGen boongoggle.

The FutureGen project was President George W. Bush’s big energy initiative—a $1 billion public-private partnership to build a near-zero emissions coal-fired power plant. 

Initially, Congress was skeptical. In 2005, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee rejected Bush’s request for FutureGen funding. Members called it a “maybe” program, too risky to merit the investment.

That should have been the end of it. But the prospect of landing a billion dollar government investment mobilized grass roots support for the project in a number of coal-states, including Texas, Illinois and Ohio, the home state to then-Chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee David Hobson (R-Ohio). So Congress changed its mind in 2006. 

Pork barrel politics, however, is a poor basis for an investment. By 2007, cost over-runs doubled the project’s estimated price-tag to almost $2 billion. Also, a significant component of the FutureGen investment became increasingly unnecessary as the private sector moved forward with gasification technologies.

Despite these warning signs, seven states continued to vie for FutureGen. Ultimately, Illinois won the right to host the project in December 2007.

Shortly thereafter, the Energy Department pulled the plug on FutureGen. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman wrote that the Department of Energy could not support the project “in good conscience” because of “the likelihood it would fail.”

Illinois politicians were predictably outraged. Disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich blamed Texas, which was also a finalist to host the project. Barack Obama co-signed a letter to the President saying that he had “lost confidence” in Secretary Bodman. Illinois Senator Richard Durbin has blocked President Bush’s political appointments.

A bloated, delay-prone clean-coal power plant might be in the interests of the Prairie State, but it is not in the national interest. Yet FutureGen remains on life support, thanks to the Illinois delegation to Congress, which hopes that a native-son in the White House will put the project back on track.

Will Obama continue to play political football with America’s energy policy? We’ll find out in February when he unveils his proposed budget. 

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