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Greener power plant taking too long?

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Federal efforts to design a non-polluting coal-fired power plant were criticized Sunday for taking too long.

The discussion came during the National Governors Association's first "field hearing" on energy, held at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, described hearings by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, of which he is a member.

The federal Department of Energy is working on what it calls "the FutureGen Project" to develop a coal-burning power plant, an official said during a hearing, according to Matheson.

Earlier, President Bush said the effort is a demonstration project to create the first coal-based, zero-emissions electricity and hydrogen plant. According to a DOE Web site, the plant would capture and sequester the carbon produced and produce electricity and hydrogen from coal. By sequestration, the DOE envisions placing waste carbon dioxide in geological settings or using it to improve petroleum recovery from oil fields.

FutureGen, Matheson said, is a "10-year, billion-dollar effort," and the demonstration plant would produce 275 megawatts of electricity.

"DOE estimates the technology will not be ready for widespread deployment — at least they testified before our committee and told us this — until the year 2045," Matheson said.

He added that a witness from the administration "did indicate that if greater funding were put in year after year to develop these technologies ... it could happen sooner than 2045." Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer responded that the West has "somewhere around $5 trillion worth of coal in the ground. We have a 300-year supply of coal we can make liquid fuels out of or we could gasify and create electricity."

Schweitzer said the United States does not have an energy shortage.

"We have a shortage of research and development to determine where we're going to pump that carbon dioxide and how long we can store it."

Apparently referring to the yearly budget for the FutureGen Project, he said, "This is a joke, $200 million to study carbon sequestration."

He asked when Congress would recognize the mistake of sending $240 billion "to dictators overseas vs. about $15 billion to develop carbon sequestration during the next 10 years."

"2045 is not realistic for clean coal technology," Schweitzer added. "Heaven help us if the Department of Energy is correct."

Matheson said he agreed with everything that Schweitzer had said. "That's why I mentioned the 2045 date because I thought that was alarming," he said.

Matheson said the country's most plentiful resource is coal and that it's an important part of the economy and will be so in the future.

"We have to, in that policy, figure out the best way to make that work for us. The disparity of what we spend overseas on energy as a society, compared with what we spend on creating domestic supply, is striking," Matheson said.

He said Congress needs to do a better job in funding new technology.

Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said that to fulfil its duties in supplying America's energy needs, the department has four related goals:"To provide access to energy resources, both traditional, non-traditional and renewable

"We have to continuously improve process efficiency. Over the last six years we've heard a constant refrain, we're awfully slow. ..."

"The absolute imperative of lightening our environmental footprint of energy production on public lands and off-shore; indeed, in general."

"We want to strengthen coordination with the states, with tribes, with communities, and enhance cooperation with land-users, with landowners, with conservation organizations and others." Undeveloped federal oil resources amount to about 21.2 billion barrels, she said. Undeveloped gas resources are about 187 trillion cubic feet.

"But access has limitations. About 24 percent of federal lands with these resources are accessible under standard lease conditions. About 30 percent are accessible with significant stipulation and restrictions that go beyond the standard lease provision.

"About 46 percent of those resources that I described are off-limits entirely. They're unacceptable. ... Those off-limits areas contain about half the oil and about a quarter of the natural gas resources in the federal inventory."

Still, energy development is accelerating, she noted.

"The starting point (in achieving energy goals) is access," she said.

A five-year plan is being completed concerning production from the continental shelf, she said.

"That five-year plan will open up some additional areas in the Gulf of Mexico as well as Alaska." Department officials hope the new plan will go into effect July 1.

During a panel discussion, Utah's state energy adviser, Laura Nelson, said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is "just a tremendous leader on energy issues."

The Legislature and governor's office worked in 2006 to "develop Utah's first comprehensive energy bill. It in fact passed unanimously through our Legislature."

Including a range of development possibilities from traditional to alternative sources, the bill "emphasized the importance of energy efficiency and conservation. And it also emphasized the importance of education."

The state needs to progress in renewable resource development such as geothermal, biomass, solar and wind power, she said. "We think we've got great opportunity to expand that."

To do so, improvements are needed in infrastructure for power transmission, Nelson said. South Dakota and Montana officials mentioned the same needs at Sunday's meeting.

In the area of climate change, she said, "the very top thing we can do is we can be energy-efficient." In April 2006, Huntsman announced a goal of increasing the state's energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2015. Nelson called it a "very aggressive goal."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com