So much for clean coal—at least for now. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it has canceled plans to build a prototype 275-megawatt power plant, its first so-called FutureGen facility, in Mattoon, Ill., which was designed to burn coal to produce electricity, and then sock away 90 percent of the resulting climate change–causing carbon dioxide safely underground.

Amid spiraling costs due to rising prices for concrete and steel, among other factors, the DOE said it was pulling the plug to save money and to restructure the agency's clean coal effort to be less centralized and more effective.

Many experts believe that truly clean coal-fired power plants, coupled with such carbon capture and storage systems, offer one of the best hopes of keeping global greenhouse warming at bay in coming decades. But green energy watchers always suspected that the government was not ready to pony up the necessary billions it would take, including the ballooning $1.8-billion estimated budget for FutureGen, which many environmentalists charged was a mere payoff for the politically connected coal industry.

Environmentalists, many of whom believe that the term "clean coal" is an oxymoron, nonetheless view the project's cancellation as yet another indication that the Bush administration lacks the commitment required to reduce the rate of growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions.

Some experts say that coal-fired plants can only become truly clean if the government and industry pump billions of dollars into the technological upgrades required to extract the carbon dioxide gas created during combustion and sequester it semipermanently deep underground.

The DOE says that it will request $241 million for fiscal year 2009 to demonstrate technologies for cost-effective carbon capture and storage for coal-fired power plants—including $156 million for the restructured FutureGen approach (aimed at commercializing the technology by 2015) and $85 million for the agency's Clean Coal Power Initiative. (Department of Energy; FutureGen Alliance)