Friday, February 13, 2009

The Largest Earmark in History

. Friday, February 13, 2009

Back in December, I wrote that the stimulus bill would be the largest rent-seeking opportunity in history. Hate to say, but "I told you so":

That’s what Republican critics charge in the case of clean-coal funding in downstate Illinois. The Senate bill included a section dedicating $4.6 billion to “fossil energy research and development,” with a $2 billion line-item “for one or more near zero emissions powerplant(s).”

Sure, that doesn’t name one powerplant, and it leaves open the idea of funding multiple powerplants, but there’s plenty of evidence that this line was intended as—and will function as—an earmark for the FutureGen coal gasification powerplant in Mattoon, Illinois.

“There’s no other plant that would be eligible,” says John Hart, spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK. Durbin’s office, the Mattoon project’s champion, didn’t return calls for comment.

Mattoon isn't too far from my old neck of the woods, so I'm fairly familiar with this story. You see, central and southern Illinois used to be home to a large coal industry. But coal from Illinois is high in sulfur, which makes it burn less cleanly than other coal. The downstate coal industry was effectively shut down by Clean Air acts and shifting anti-pollution public opinion. The collapse of the coal industry, combined with the closure of several manufacturing plants, devastated the downstate economy, and the area hasn't yet recovered.

So this plan to develop FutureGen, a coal-gasification plant, was cheered by many. The problem is that the plant has never been anywhere near economically viable. In order to get it off the ground, it was always going to require large amounts of federal money. So Governor Rod Blagojevich hired lobbyists, and paid them very well with state funds, to lobby Congress. One of these lobbyists was Senate majority leader Harry Reid's chief of staff (who received over $300,000 from the state of Illinois). Another is former Representative Dick Gephardt. Obama has long supported the project in the Illinois legislature. Now, apparently, he's doing the same from the White House.

So here's the funny part: this FutureGen plant came about in Dick Cheney's much-maligned Energy Bill, which was written with the aid of energy groups. The goal was promote clean-energy. But environmentalists claim that there is no such thing as "clean coal".

So, this is a "green" plan that environmentalists hate, a payoff to Obama's old state with a barely-disguised payout to Senator Reid's chief of staff included, created by Dick Cheney (but opposed by Illinois Republicans), strongly supported by future inmate Gov. Blagojevich (who spent state funds to hire lobbyists to get the funding) and comes with a price tag of at least $2bn.

What's not to like?

(ht: Wilkinson)


The Largest Earmark in History
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