Come Home, Dick Durbin: Come Clean on FutureGen

As the nation comes to grips with the need to shift our focus to non-fossil fuel sources of energy, it is disappointing to see Sen. Durbin turn into a cheerleader for the "Dirtiest Wing" of the coal industry.
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As an Illinois voter, I have always valued and voted for US Senator Dick Durbin. In the footsteps of Paul Simon, our beloved senator from southern Illinois, Dick Durbin has been a voice of clarity in Congress on many of the great issues of our times. I deeply admired his vocal opposition to the Iraq war.

At a time when the nation is coming to grips with the reality of dirty coal and its indisputable impact on climate destabilization and our coalfield communities, when virtually everyone in Paul Wellstone's "Democratic Wing" of the Democratic Party recognizes the necessity to dramatically shift our focus to non-fossil fuel sources of energy, it is disappointing to see Sen. Durbin turn into a cheerleader for the "Dirtiest Wing" of the coal industries.

At the same time Peabody Energy celebrated an eightfold increase in profits last quarter and announced its intention to reopen the controversial and widely denounced strip mine on tribal lands on Black Mesa in Arizona, Sen. Durbin has been arm-twisting Department of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and President Barack Obama into subsidizing Peabody's--and a host of the world's largest extraction companies--FutureGen boondoggle.

No constituent, especially in my economically depressed area, begrudges a senator who wants to bring home the bacon in the form of a massive jobs program. Because, when the cards are put on the table, everyone in Illinois knows that the $1.8 billion price tag for the now "near zero-emissions" FutureGen experimental plant has nothing to do with the delusion of carbon capture and storage of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants.

It's all about 1,500 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs.

It's just a shame that Sen. Durbin has not invested the same amount of time and massive political clout into launching a FutureWind project in western Illinois, or investing that same amount of money into making Illinois the new industrial heartland for wind mill factories or solar panel factories to serve the rest of the nation, or a whole host of other renewable energy green jobs.

Dick Durbin's fervent, near obsessive campaign to bring the FutureGen coal-fired plant to Illinois belies three main delusions:

1) That FutureGen will jumpstart Illinois' coal industry. As The Southern Illinoisian newspaper's editorial board wrote last summer, FutureGen "was seen as a first step in developing a market for our region's ample stores of bituminous coal." Here in Illinois, Durbin, like many in our congressional delegation, has yet to come to grips with the fact that our coal industry collapsed after the Clean Air Act of 1990. Nor does Durbin, in light of Big Coal's highly mechanized and stripped down operations, ever discuss the reality that the coal industry provides less than 3,800 mostly union-busted jobs in Illinois today. Since 2002, the state of Illinois has bankrolled a Coal Revival Program. According to one survey, "the U.S. Department of Energy's National Electric Technology Laboratory reported that during the Blagojevich administration, Illinois has entertained more proposals for new coal-based electric power plants than any other state."

2) That FutureGen is feasible. As Joseph Romm at the Center for American Progress pointed out last year when the Bush administration set aside the FutureGen boondoggle because of spiraling costs and other uncertainties, FutureGen was either doubly pointless or doubly cynical. Romm has written extensively about FutureGen's unsolved problems of cost, timing, scale and transparency.

According to most scientists, any feasible and safe implementation for a carbon capture and storage plan for coal-fired plants on a nationwide utility scale, is still a decade or two away. A GAO report in 2008 concluded that federal agencies had not begun to even address the "full range of issues that would require resolution for commercial-scale CCS deployment."

At the same time, NASA climatologist James Hansen and a group of leading scientists published a paper in Science Magazine last spring that spelled out the future challenge in dealing with carbon dioxide emissions in clear terms: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

"What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future," Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, has declared. "This is the defining moment."

3) That coal is clean. As the Randolph Herald Tribune noted, Durbin tells his constituents: ""We can use coal to generate electricity and there is virtually no pollution caused by its usage."

In light of last December's TVA coal ash disaster, which poured over a billion gallons of toxic sludge into east Tennessee watershed and will cost a reported $825 million to clean up, and mercury emissions from coal-fired plants, and in a state that has experienced some of the worst mining accidents in American history, and still deals with an extraordinary rate of black lung disease among our coal miners, Durbin's rhetoric about "clean coal" rings incredibly hollow.

Last week, at a celebration for the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, Sen. Durbin wrote a very poignant tribute on "What Lincoln Means to Me." Durbin wrote:

"But if Lincoln could face down a Wall Street and banking crisis and channel the awesome power of the American people -- acting through their government - to lay the foundation for a modern economy and create economic opportunities for generations of Americans to come and, at the same time, find the strength to save the Union, drive a stake into the stubborn heart of slavery, and redeem the promise of the Declaration of Independence , all while writing some of the most powerful and sublime words ever composed in the English language, surely we can find our way through these present troubles. That is another of the lessons Lincoln has taught me.

Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago. But the principles by which he lived and for which he died are true and timeless. And his wisdom and example continues to offer us hope and guidance, if we will only pay attention."

Dick Durbin needs to rise to the occasion and offer us more hope and guidance than the ruse of FutureGen. It's time for Dick Durbin to think anew, in the words of Lincoln, and come clean on the dirty realities of coal.

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