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Obama’s nod to ‘clean coal,’ and a tale of three plants

Today, following pressure from Republicans upset by the omission of coal from President Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan, the Obama campaign has added a section for “clean coal” to its website, The Hill reports.

But in the Midwest, as elsewhere, low-emissions coal projects are having trouble getting off the ground, in large part because of plunging natural gas prices.

In Illinois, Tenaska has been working for five years to gain legislative approval for a power plant that would convert coal to synthetic natural gas and use it to generate electricity. The developer is now offering to build only the natural gas portion of the plant, adding the coal gasification facilities later when market conditions warrant. Jeffrey Tomich of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has an overview.

The situation is remarkably similar to that of the Mesaba Energy Project in Minnesota, which Midwest Energy News reporter Dan Haugen profiled last year. Mesaba, which has been in development for 10 years and has received $41 million in public money, recently won approval from the state legislature to proceed with a natural gas plant while keeping state funding intended for advanced energy projects.

And yesterday, reporter Kari Lydersen wrote about a proposed coal gasification plant in Indiana that would sell the synthetic gas to consumers via a state agency rather than use it to generate electricity. Under a current proposal, the plant would sell gas at a rate more than double the current market price for natural gas, drawing opposition from environmentalists, consumer advocates and free-market conservatives.

As Lydersen reported last month, natural gas prices (along with pollution rules and other factors) are raising serious questions about the economic viability of existing conventional coal plants, meaning far more expensive “clean coal” projects may be impossible without considerable public subsidies.

And since that dependence on public support is a frequent point of criticism about renewable power, it will be interesting to see where the president’s endorsement of coal will take the subsidy debate.

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