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Energy Department aims to boost cleaner fossil-fuel technology funding

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WASHINGTON – Federal energy officials unveiled a plan Tuesday to offer up to $8 billion of loan guarantees for development of cleaner-burning fossil-fuel technologies.

“The plan recognizes we have an obligation to the planet,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who said the plan would double funds for development of technologies that burn fossil fuels more cleanly.

But one Arizona environmentalist called it a step in the wrong direction, saying the government should instead be encouraging investment in renewable energy.

“We need to transition out of fossil fuels,” said Sandy Bahr, president of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The announcement comes just days after President Barack Obama unveiled a sweeping set of proposals aimed at battling climate change. Included in that plan were calls to cut carbon emissions from power plants and to invest in clean-energy technologies – including biofuels, nuclear and clean coal.

Energy Department officials Tuesday noted that the government has already invested $6 billion in clean-coal technology and Moniz said coal “is, in fact, a part of the mix” for the new program aimed at developing cleaner-burning technologies.

But Bahr called clean coal “an oxymoron. There’s no such thing.”

Coal was the biggest source of electricity generation in Arizona in March, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, followed by nuclear power from the Palo Verde plant and natural gas. Hydroelectric and other renewables accounted for a fraction of the state’s power generation, even though Arizona had the third-most photovoltaic installations in the country in January 2012, the administration said.

Arizona ranked 16th in the nation for coal production in 2011, the agency said. The state’s only coal mine, Kayenta, on the Navajo reservation, produces the 7 to 8 million short tons of coal annually that are used to fire the Navajo Generating Station.

Officials with Salt River Project, which operates the Navajo power plant, and with Arizona Public Service, which operates several other coal-fired plants in the state, did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment on the Energy Department plan.

Department officials Tuesday pushed back on environmental worries about fossil fuels, saying that the administration is on track to meet its goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030.

“We will push the edge on the energy front,” Moniz said.

They also downplayed concerns that the application process will be too burdensome for businesses interested in pursuing loans.

“Application portals have speeded up the process on the front end,” said Moniz, adding that under the Obama administration, application approvals are up 80 percent.

The program will be open for public comment through September, when the department expects to begin taking applications for loans.

“We’re asking private industry to comment” on this proposal, said Bill Simmons, a department spokesman.

“We are clearly going to do due diligence to make sure we use taxpayer money wisely,” Moniz said.

This announcement comes a week after the Interior Department approved plans for a wind farm near Kingman. It also approved plans for a solar power plant near Quartzsite in early June.

According to state-by-state data released by the White House with the president’s climate plan, renewable energy resources in Arizona have increased 1,200 percent since 2009 and more than 9,600 renewable energy projects have been developed in the state.