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Washington University, corporate sponsors launch clean coal effort

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 | 4:57 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Two major coal companies and one of the Midwest's largest utilities are combining with Washington University to try and make St. Louis the nation's center for clean coal research and education.

Arch Coal and Peabody Energy are based in St. Louis. So is the utility company Ameren Corp. Chief executive officers from those companies and Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton on Tuesday announced formation of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization.

"Despite the difficult financial times, the university and these lead corporate sponsors realize that the investment in such research will benefit the region and the world in the long run," Wrighton said at a news conference at the university. "The knowledge and technology we will be able to create together will over time mean lower costs to customers and global environmental improvement."

Wrighton said the university has dedicated more than $60 million over the past year to education and research on energy, the environment and sustainability. A new building is expected to open in 2010.

Under the consortium, Arch Coal and Peabody each will contribute $5 million and Ameren will contribute $2 million. The money will be paid over a five-year period.

Coal is a vital part of power production in the U.S. and around the world. About half of all power generated in the U.S. comes from coal. Ameren chief executive Gary Rainwater said 85 percent of Ameren's electricity is generated by coal. The company serves parts of Missouri and Illinois.

The consortium will explore the possibility of combusting coal with biomass, or combustion of coal in pure oxygen, among other options. The goal is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most closely linked with global warming.

"I'm often asked does clean coal technology work," said Steven Leer, chief executive of Arch Coal. "The answer is a resounding yes." He noted that the use of coal has tripled since 1970, but pollutant emissions are now about 30 percent of what they were then.

President-elect Barack Obama has shown some signs of supporting clean coal technology. As a senator from Illinois, he supported the state's bid for the FutureGen experimental coal-fired power plant that was awarded to Mattoon, Ill. But in January, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled the plug on that project. Supporters hope to revive it once Obama takes office.

Some environmentalists say there's no such thing as clean coal, especially stopping the emission of carbon dioxide.

"Clean coal is a marketing mechanism that coal companies like Peabody are using to misinform the public," said Melissa Hope of the Missouri Sierra Club. "It serves to distract us from real clean energy solutions."

But St. Louis' coal leaders say carbon dioxide can be reduced. The issue, they said, is getting technology to the point where it can be done in a cost-efficient way.

"The toughest issues are probably going to be the social issues, the environmental issues, around how we dispose of carbon dioxide once we capture it," Rainwater said.

Richard Axelbaum, director of the consortium, noted that oil, gas, wind and solar energy are only realistically plentiful in certain parts of the world. "Coal represents perhaps the only source of energy available in every nation," he said.


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