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Science & Environment

'The New York Times' Investigates An Ailing Clean Coal Project

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A key part of President Obama's climate plan sits off line in rural Mississippi. It's a coal plant that was supposed to open two years ago. It is $4 billion over budget and the focus of an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The administration wanted a successful clean coal facility. Mississippi wanted the glory and the jobs. Ian Urbina conducted a big investigation into the Kemper coal plant and his story is on the front page of The New York Times today. He told me the project is centered on carbon capture technology.

IAN URBINA: So this plant burns coal in a different way. It superheats coal and it doesn't use oxygen so you're not supposed to say burn, and it turns it into synthetic gas and then it burns the synthetic gas and it uses that to turn the turbines that produce electricity. And the carbon capture stage is at the synthetic-gas-burning moment. They pull out the carbon and liquefy it and pipe it elsewhere. That's how the technology works, and the big problem with this plant is the economics more than the technology.

SHAPIRO: So you can understand why the technology would have had promise, why did the economics go so dramatically wrong?

URBINA: A couple reasons, one, fracking. The natural gas boom occurred in the interim and the price of the competitor fell through the floor. Number two, they underestimated how much the plant would cost because they began building too early. They had only done 10, 20 percent of the design and so they misstated the overall cost.

SHAPIRO: Does that suggest that the underlying premise of clean coal and carbon capture was flawed, or was this just a really bad project trying to execute what otherwise is a really good idea.

URBINA: It's a hard question to answer because there are few successful - economically successful projects out there. And the reason for that at the end of the day is that it's still always cheaper without a carbon tax to just dump the carbon into the air because there's no market for the carbon for the waste product. You build these very elaborate plants for the sake of doing right by the government, but they're costlier than if you just went with the cheaper alternative, which is natural gas.

SHAPIRO: This article describes a huge government investment in an emerging technology. And I wondered as I read it whether things would have gone differently if the investment came from say, venture capital firms rather than the government. What role did the federal government play here?

URBINA: So there was a moment early on in the project where there was a chunk of money, it was $270-odd million that was on the table to be had by Mississippi. But there are certain things that had to happen by a certain date and this was the fatal flaw in some ways. The project engineers rushed to get that money. If this had been a project that didn't have that timetable on it, it might have taken even longer than it is now, but there may have been tougher questions asked at the front end and they may have not launched on the path or they may have launched on it knowing full well that this was a long-term investment.

SHAPIRO: You now have this giant project that is $4-some billion in debt and the subject of two major federal investigations, what now?

URBINA: Well, so the project is supposed to come online in about a month or two. But that's been what they've said for several months now. Every extra month it's delayed it's 20 million more. We've got the big question of who will pay the remainder 3, 4 billion dollars still on the table, taxpayers, investors, Mississippi citizens and can they get it up and working and keep it working. These are all open questions. The company says they're going to go online and they're going to pay down the debt and it'll all be worth it. But we'll have to wait and see.

SHAPIRO: Will you be there for the ribbon cutting?

URBINA: I won't be there for the ribbon cutting.

SHAPIRO: Ian Urbina, thanks a lot.

URBINA: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Ian Urbina's New York Times story is called, "A Model For Clean Coal Goes Awry." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.