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Feuding over funds for cleaner coal.

Feuding Over Funds for Cleaner Coal

The bid to establish a $400 million clean-coal technology program was a long, hard-fought political struggle marked by threats of a presidential veto. In the end, an unlikely coalition of utilities, coal companies and environmental groups persuaded Congress that the money would be well spent, and legislation establishing the program was passed last December. Now these groups are complaining that the Department of Energy (DOE), which last week issued its call for proposals to be funded under the new program, has failed to live up to its obligations.

Coal fuels the generation of more than 55 percent of the electricity produced in the United States. Under strong pressure from environmentalists and legislators concerned about acid rain, the coal industry and utilities are stepping up their effort to burn coal more cleanly. The clean-coal program's success depends on how many research proposals DOE gets from industry. In each case, industry has to supply at least half the funds for a given project.

Getting this program through Congress during a time of tight budgets, and despite the Reagan administration's opposition, was a great achievement, says Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). "Today, we are at a point which many skeptics thought we would never reach," he said last week in Washington, D.C., at a conference examining the clean-coal program.

The administration now says it strongly supports the program. This shift may have been prompted by a recent report (SN: 1/18/86, p. 37) from special envoys Drew L. Lewis and William G. Davis. That report recommends that the U.S. government spend $2.5 billion over a five-year period to develop new coal-cleaning techniques to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.

"There is no chance that the administration will propose a $2.5 billion program," says Randal H. Ihara, a Senate staff member. "The clean-coal technology program currently represents the only program to which the administration can point as a basis for further discussions of the acid rain issue with Canada." This subject will probably top the agenda when President Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney meet later this month.

However, program supporters are concerned about how DOE has decided to implement the program. Controversy already surrounds at least one clause in DOE's request for proposals. This clause requires industry to pay back the government's share in any project.

"This program was conceived as a partnership between the private sector and the federal government," says Byrd. Turning the government's share into a repayable loan "is not in agreement with the intent of Congress," he says.

"The bureaucrats are trying to steal clean coal," says Carl E. Bagge of the National Coal Association, based in Washington, D.C. "Clean-coal money must be kept separate, clearly visible and free of restrictions that kill incentive."

Environmentalists are also worried about DOE's actions. If DOE selects large, expensive projects, then the program's value in providing cheap and effective air pollution controls will be limited, says John L. McCormick of the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

"The solution to the acid deposition problem must represent a 'win-win' situation for both the Northeast and the Midwest," says McCormick. "That is why we worked so hard to win congressional approval for the clean-coal technology reserve. And that is why the program's ultimate success is so important."
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Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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