Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Futureby Jeff Goodell
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Long dismissed as a relic of a bygone era, coal is back -- with a vengeance. Coal is one of the nation's biggest and most influential industries -- Big Coal provides more than half the electricity consumed by Americans today -- and its dominance is growing, driven by rising oil prices and calls for energy independence. Is coal the solution to America's energy problems?
On close examination, the glowing promise of coal quickly turns to ash. Coal mining remains a deadly and environmentally destructive industry. Nearly forty percent of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year comes from coal-fired power plants. In the last two decades, air pollution from coal plants has killed more than half a million Americans. In this eye-opening call to action, Goodell explains the costs and consequences of America's addiction to coal and discusses how we can kick the habit.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
"[A] compelling indictment of one of the country's biggest, most powerful and most antiquated industries . . . well-written, timely and powerful." The New York Times
"Big Coal gives its readers a clear sense of the tradeoffs we face in our feverish quest for inexpensive energy, and that's more than enough for one book." --Book World The Washington Post
"Big Coal's greatest strength lies in Goodell's ability to tell human stories -- how individuals, families and communities are affected by the mining, production, and consumption of coal." --Rocky Mountain News
"Goodell's writing [is] so fiery and committed." The New York Times Book Review
"Without overloading the reader with scientific jargon or overhwelming statistical information, Goodell does a first-rate job of balancing environmental concerns with interviews from the human faces associated with 'Big Coal.'" Library Journal
"Most people don't know it yet, but whether the world can continue to burn coal is one of the most important questions of the twenty-first century. Big Coal is a major contribution to getting the answer right. Smart, fair, impassioned, and very well written, this is a book that matters." --Mark Hertsgaard, author of Earth Odyssey
"Jeff Goodell's incisive, gripping firsthand report on the second coming of King Coal impacts everyone and everything on earth." --Ralph Nader
"Lucid, penetrating, and long overdue, Big Coal should be required reading for anyone, from policymakers to consumers, who wants to understand what really drives energy politics in America." --Paul Roberst, author of The End of Oil
"Big Coal is an absorbing, urgently important book. Jeff Goodell does a marvelous job exposing the hidden workings of a deeply entrenched industry and showing how our use of coal poses a grave threat to our collective future." --Barbara Freese, author of Coal: A Human History
"Long after we have run out of oil and natural gas, we will still have coal. As Jeff Goodell compellingly documents, this is a blessing that is also a curse. Big Coal should be read by anybody who owns a microwave, or an iPod, or a table lamp, which is to say everyone." --Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes From A Catastrophe
"Jeff Goodell's Big Coal is a rousing job of narrative journalism that cuts through the smog of delusion clouding America's energy future, a fascinating and frightening glimpse into the hidden power circuts of American industry and politics." --James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency
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Read an Excerpt
One of the triumphs of modern life is our ability to distance ourselves from the
simple facts of our own existence. We love our hamburgers, but we've never
seen the inside of a slaughterhouse. We're not sure if the asparagus that
accompanies our salmon is grown in Ecuador or Oregon. We flush the toilet
and don't want to know any more. If we feel bad, we take a pill. We don't
even bury our own dead—they are carted away and buried or burned for us.
It's easy to forget what a luxury this is—until you visit a place like
China. Despite its booming economy in recent years, the insulating walls of
modern life have not yet been fully erected there. In restaurants, the entrées
are often alive in a cage in the dining room. Herbs and acupuncture needles
inspire more faith than pharmaceutical drugs. Toilets stink. In rural areas,
running water is a surprise, hot water a thrill. When you flip the switch on the
wall and the light goes on, you know exactly what it costs—all you have to
do is take a deep breath and feel the burn of coal smoke in your lungs.
To a westerner, nothing is more uncivilized than the sulfury smell
of coal. You can't take a whiff without thinking of labor battles and
underground mine explosions, of chugging smokestacks and black lung.
But coal is everywhere in twenty-first-century China. It's piled up
on sidewalks, pressed into bricks and stacked near the back doors of
homes, stockpiled into small mountains in the middle of open fields, and
carted around behind bicycles and old wheezing locomotives. Plumes of coal
smokerise from rusty stacks on every urban horizon. There is soot on every
windowsill and around the collar of every white shirt. Coal is what's fueling
China's economic boom, and nobody makes any pretense that it isn't. And
as it did in America one hundred years ago, the power of coal will lift China
into a better world. It will make the country richer, more civilized, and more
remote from the hard facts of life, just like us.
The cost of the rough journey China is undertaking is obvious.
More than six thousand workers a year are killed in China's coal mines. The
World Health Organization estimates that in East Asia, a region made up
predominantly of China and South Korea, 355,000 people a year die from the
effects of urban outdoor air pollution. The first time I visited Jiamusi, a city in
China's industrial north, it was so befouled by coal smoke that I could hardly
see across the street. All over China, limestone buildings are dissolving in
the acidic air. In Beijing, the ancient outdoor statuary at a 700-year-old Taoist
temple I visited was encased in Plexiglas to protect it. And it's not just the
Chinese who are paying for their coal-fired prosperity. Pollution from China's
power plants blows across the Pacific and is inhaled by sunbathers on
Malibu beach. Toxic mercury from Chinese coal finds its way into polar bears
in the Arctic. Most seriously, the carbon dioxide released by China's mad
burning of coal is helping to destabilize the climate of the entire planet.
All this would be much easier to condemn if the West had not
done exactly the same thing during its headlong rush to become rich and
prosperous. In fact, we're still doing it. Although America is a vastly richer
country with many more options available to us, our per capita consumption
of coal is three times higher than China's. You can argue that we manage it
better—our mines are safer, our power plants are cleaner—but mostly we
just hide it better. We hide it so well, in fact, that many Americans think that
coal went out with corsets and top hats. Most of us have no idea how central
coal is to our everyday lives or what our relationship with this black rock
really costs us.
In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than
ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a
day. We don't use it to warm our hearths anymore, but we burn it by wire
whenever we flip on the light switch or charge up our laptops. More than one
hundred years after Thomas Edison connected the first light bulb to a coal-
fired generator, coal remains the bedrock of the electric power industry in
America. About half the electricity we consume comes from coal—we burn
more than a billion tons of it a year, usually in big, aging power plants that
churn out amazing quantities of power, profit, and pollution. In fact, electric
power generation is one of the largest and most capital-intensive industries in
the country, with revenues of more than $260 billion in 2004. And the rise of
the Internet—a global network of electrons—has only increased the
industry's power and influence. We may not like to admit it, but our shiny
white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks.
This was not how things were supposed to go in America. Coal
was supposed to be the engine of the industrial revolution, not the Internet
revolution. It once powered our steamships and trains; it forged the steel that
won the wars and shaped our cars and skyscrapers and airplanes. It kept
pioneers warm on the prairie and built fortunes for robber barons such as
Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Without coal, the world as we know it
today would be impossible to imagine. There should be monuments to coal in
every big city, giant statues of Pennsylvania anthracite and West Virginia
bituminous. It is literally the rock that built America.
But we've been hooked on coal for almost 150 years now, and like
a Bowery junkie, we keep telling ourselves it's time to come clean, without
ever actually doing it. We stopped burning coal in our homes in the 1930s, in
locomotives in the 1940s, and by the 1950s it seemed that coal was on its
way out for electricity generation, too. Nuclear power was the great dream of
the post–World War II era, but the near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island
nuclear plant in 1979 put an end to that. Then natural gas overtook coal as
the fuel of choice. If coal was our industrial smack, natural gas was our
methadone: it was clean, easy to transport, and nearly as cheap as coal.
Virtually every power plant built in America between 1975 and 2002 was gas-
fired. Almost everybody in the energy world presumed that the natural gas
era would soon give way to even cleaner sources of power generation—wind,
solar, biofuels, hydrogen, perhaps someday solar panels on the moon. As for
the old coal plants, they would be dismantled, repowered, or left to rust in the
But like many revolutions, this one hasn't progressed quite as
Energy-wise, the fundamental problem in the world today is that the earth's
reserves of fossil fuels are finite but our appetite for them is not. The issue is
not simply that there are more people in the world, consuming more fossil
fuels, but that as economies grow and people in developing nations are lifted
out of poverty, they buy cars and refrigerators and develop an appetite for
gas, oil, and coal. Between 1950 and 2000, as the world population grew by
roughly 140 percent, fossil fuel consumption increased by almost 400
percent. By 2030, the world's demand for energy is projected to more than
double, with most of that energy coming from fossil fuels.
Of course, every barrel of oil we pump out of the ground, every
cubic foot of natural gas we consume, and every ton of coal we burn further
depletes reserves. For a while, our day of reckoning was put off by the fact
that technological innovation outpaced consumption: the more fossil fuels we
burned, the better we became at finding more, lulling us into a false belief
that the world's reserves of fossil fuels are eternal. But that delusion can't
last forever. In fact, there are increasing signs that it won't last much longer.
Oil is the most critical fossil fuel for modern economies,
underlying everything from transportation to manufacturing. In 2004, the world
consumed about 80 million barrels of oil each day, about 30 percent of which
came from the Middle East. The world is not going to run out of oil anytime
soon, but it might run out of cheap, easy-to-get oil. As that happens, prices
are likely to spike, fundamentally disrupting major parts of the world's
economy. You don't have to buy into the apocalyptic scenarios that some
doomsayers predict — the collapse of industrial society, widespread
famine — to see that the end of cheap oil is going to inspire panic and
economic chaos as the world scrambles to find a replacement energy source.
The situation with natural gas is not much better. In the United
States, consumption of natural gas, which is mostly used for home heating
and the manufacture of industrial products, as well as agricultural fertilizers
and chemicals, has jumped by about 40 percent in the past two decades.
About 85 percent of that gas came from domestic sources, but production in
the United States has been flat for several decades, leading us to import
more and more from Canada, where production is also beginning to peak.
There are still substantial reserves in places such as Russia and Qatar, but
the global shipping and trading infrastructure is woefully undeveloped.
Upgrading it will cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete. Not
surprisingly, natural gas prices have tripled in the past few years and caused
home heating bills to rise rapidly in many regions of the country.
What about the other alternatives? Nuclear power can be used to
generate electricity, but no new plants have been built in America in thirty
years. This is primarily because nuclear plants are still haunted by the
ghosts of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, as well as unresolved problems of
radioactive waste. Even if the social and environmental hurdles could be
overcome, nuclear plants are so expensive to build that a major resurgence is
unlikely. And as much as we would all like to imagine we could live in a world
powered by solar panels and wind turbines, these alternative energy sources
are not yet capable of powering our high-tech economy.
Out of this, coal has emerged as the default fuel of choice. Coal
has a number of virtues as a fuel: it can be shipped via boats and railroads,
it's easy to store, and it's easy to burn. But coal's main advantage over other
fuels is that it's cheap and plentiful. There are an estimated 1 trillion tons of
recoverable coal in the world, by far the largest reserve of fossil fuel left on the
planet. And despite a run-up in coal prices in 2004 and 2005, coal is still
inexpensive compared to other fuels. In a world starved for energy, the
importance of this simple fact cannot be underestimated: the world needs
cheap power, and coal can provide it.
America is literally built upon thick seams of coal. Just as Saudi
Arabia dominates the global oil market because of the geological good luck
of having more than 20 percent of the world's oil reserves, the United States
is a big advocate for coal because it has the geological good luck of having
more than 25 percent of the world's recoverable coal reserves—about 270
billion tons—buried within its borders. As coal industry executives never tire
of pointing out, this is enough coal to fuel America at the current rate of
consumption for about 250 years. To put the size of its bounty into
perspective, consider this: all of western Europe has only 36 billion tons of
recoverable coal. China has less than half as much as the United States—
126 billion tons. India and Australia, both big coal burners, have even less
than China. The only country with reserves that come close to America's is
Russia, with 176 billion tons, but much of that coal is in remote regions and
difficult to mine. Not surprisingly, coal boosters often refer to America as "the
Saudi Arabia of coal."
America's great bounty of coal confers upon the United States
many economic and political advantages. As a purely practical matter, it
means that America will not go dark while scientists search for a
replacement for fossil fuels. If the world becomes energy-starved, our
reserves mean that America will have a source of fuel to keep our factories
running and our cities well lit. If oil supplies collapse and prices skyrocket,
we can begin a crash program to build coal liquefaction plants, which can
turn coal into synthetic diesel. It won't keep our SUVs rolling, but it might
help keep our F-16s flying. Using a similar process, coal can also be
transformed into synthetic natural gas, fertilizers, and a variety of industrial
But this great bounty of coal is also a great liability. It means that
America has a big incentive to drag out the inevitable transition to cleaner,
more modern forms of energy generation. In a world that is moving toward
energy efficiency, coal is a big loser. Alternative energy guru Amory Lovins
estimates that by the time you mine the coal, haul it to the power plant, burn
it, and then send the electricity out over the wires to the incandescent bulb in
your home, only about 3 percent of the energy contained in a ton of coal is
transformed into light. In fact, just the energy wasted by coal plants in
America would be enough to power the entire Japanese economy. In effect,
America's vast reserve of coal is like a giant carbon anchor slowing down the
nation's transition to new sources of energy. And because coal is the dirtiest
and most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels—coal plants are responsible for
nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse
gas—a commitment to coal is tantamount to a denial of a whole host of
environmental and public health issues, including global warming. When
you're sitting on top of 250 years' worth of coal, an international agreement to
limit carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is easily seen
as a crude attempt by jealous competitors to blunt one of America's great
strategic and economic advantages.
In America, the story of coal's emergence as the default fuel of
choice is inextricably tied up with corruption, politics, and war. California's
long, torturous "energy crisis," which lasted through the summer of 2000 and
culminated in rolling blackouts in January 2001, underscored the need for
new investment in electricity generation and transmission. The collapse of
Big Coal's arch-nemesis, Enron, also helped coal regain some of its luster.
Once heralded as a great modernizing force in the electric power industry,
promising to bring a market-driven revolution to the old energy empire, Enron
turned out to be a den of thieves. The company's fall—one of the largest
bankruptcies in U.S. history—helped throw the natural gas market into
turmoil, sending prices skyrocketing and making coal so inexpensive in
comparison that operating a coal plant became, as one industry consultant
explained it to me, "like running a legal mint."
The 2000 presidential election was another turning point.
Democratic candidate Al Gore was one of the first American politicians to
take global warming seriously, and anyone who takes global warming
seriously is not a friend of Big Coal. Coal industry executives knew that if
Gore was elected, regulations to limit or tax carbon dioxide emissions
wouldn't be far behind. So Big Coal threw its money and muscle behind
George W. Bush, helping him gain a decisive edge in key industrial states,
including West Virginia, a Democratic stronghold that had not voted for a
Republican presidential candidate in seventy-five years. After the disputed
Florida recount, West Virginia's five electoral votes provided the margin that
Bush needed to take his seat in the Oval Office.
President Bush made good on his debt. Within weeks of taking
the oath of office, Bush began staffing regulatory agencies with former coal
industry executives and lobbyists. Not surprisingly, Big Coal also played a
prominent role in Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy
Development Group, which was charged with crafting a new energy policy.
The task force's recommendations were unabashedly coal-friendly, including
a call for up to 1,900 new power plants over the next twenty years; a $2
billion, ten-year subsidy for "clean coal" technology; and a recommendation
that the Department of Justice "review" enforcement actions against dirty coal
Finally, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on
September 11, 2001, was an unexpected boon for Big Coal. Politically, it
took the spotlight off many of the Bush administration's controversial coal-
friendly energy policies, which were just beginning to make headlines. More
important, 9/11 changed the tone of the debate about energy in America,
making many of us reconsider the high cost of our dependence on oil from
the Middle East. In our globally connected world, "energy independence" is
more of a political slogan than a practical reality. But as long as American
soldiers were dying in the oil-rich Middle East, it seemed downright
unpatriotic to oppose coal.
For Big Coal, this change in America's political and economic
climate was transformative. Around the country, any open patch of ground
near a railroad, a high-voltage transmission line, and a decent-size population
of electricity consumers became a possible site for a new coal plant. As of
2005, more than 120 new plants, representing more than $99 billion in new
investment, were either planned or under construction in the United States.
Long-shuttered mines were reopening, and old coal miners were dusting off
their boots. Wall Street analysts, in a swoon over the old rock (the Street
loves big, expensive projects with all-but-guaranteed returns such as coal
plants), began cranking out pro-coal reports with titles such as "Come On
Over to the Dark Side" and "Party On, King Coal!" The rebirth of coal is not
just about energy; it is also a cultural uprising of sorts, a taking back of a key
part of America's economic life that is, in its own way, as reactionary as the
public campaigns against evolution or gay marriage. It is about the revenge of
the Old Economy over all those technology-loving geeks who thought an
energy revolution was at hand, who said that the forces of creative
destruction would wreak havoc on one of the world's great industrial empires,
and who naively believed that the future would be powered by solar panels
Lost in the hype, of course, is a sober accounting of what this
new coal boom might really cost us. In January 2006, seventeen men died in
Appalachian coal mines, including twelve men in an explosion at the Sago
mine in northern West Virginia and two more after a fire in the Alma mine in
the southern part of the state. Since 1900, more than 100,000 people have
been killed in coal mine accidents, many forever entombed by collapsed
roofs and tumbling pillars. Black lung, a disease common among miners from
inhaling coal dust, can be conservatively estimated to have killed another
200,000 workers. And burning coal is even more deadly. In just the past
twenty years, air pollution from coal plants has shortened the lives of more
than half a million Americans. The broad legacy of environmental
devastation—acid rain, polluted lakes and rivers, mined-out mountains—is
impossible to tabulate. In Appalachia alone, the waste from mountaintop
removal mining (instead of removing the coal from the mountain, the mountain
is removed from the coal) has destroyed more than 700 miles of streams,
polluted the region's groundwater and rivers, and turned about 400,000 acres
of some of the world's most biologically rich temperate forests into flat,
barren wastelands. Plumes of toxic particles drift from Ohio northeast to
Maine; a molecule of mercury emitted from the stack of a power plant in
Tampa ends up in the brain of a child in Minneapolis. If and when fruit trees
start growing on the Alaskan tundra, American coal burners past and present
will be largely responsible.
Not so long ago, you could justify coal's dark side with a single
word: jobs. In the 1920s, when more than 700,000 workers worked in the
mines, it was plausible to argue that miners were the backbone of the
economy. Today there are more florists in America than there are coal
miners. And if coal mining were the sure-fire ticket to wealth and prosperity
that many in the industry claim, West Virginians would be dancing on gold-
paved streets. Over the past 150 years or so, more than 13 billion tons of
coal have been carted out of the Mountain State. What do West Virginians
have to show for it? The lowest median household income in the nation, a
literacy rate in the southern coalfields that's about the same as Kabul's, and
a generation of young people who are abandoning their home state to seek
their fortunes elsewhere.
The argument that cheap power is vital to keeping American
manufacturers competitive also is suspect. At a time when U.S. auto
manufacturers spend more money on health care for their workers than on
steel for their cars, it's increasingly hard to make the case that cheap
electricity is a major factor in keeping jobs from being exported to Asia. By
contrast, a full-blown push for clean energy could unleash a jobs bonanza
that would make what happened in Silicon Valley in the 1990s look like a
What's most remarkable about the coal boom is that, unlike other
recent booms, which were driven by an overwhelming exuberance, this one is
driven by overpowering fear: fear that the world is running out of energy, fear
that America is losing its edge, fear of relinquishing the industrial age belief
that we can drill and mine our way to peace and prosperity, and, most of all,
fear that if we don't burn more coal, we will put not only the economic health
of the nation at risk but civilization itself. "Have you ever been in a blackout?"
one coal executive asked me while I was researching this book. "Do you
remember how dark the whole world gets? Do you remember how scary it is?"
Growing up in California, I had a firsthand look at the devil's bargain of
progress. In the space of a few decades, my hometown of Silicon Valley
went from a sleepy oasis of fruit trees to the epicenter of the digital world.
The lovely apricot orchards in my neighborhood were bulldozed and replaced
by tract housing. Ferraris appeared at stoplights like exotic birds. I saw some
friends and family members catch the wave and get rich, while others who
had less talent for life in the new world fell farther and farther behind. I loved
my computer, and I loved the freedom and prosperity that came with it, but I
could never rid myself of the sense that the wonders of the digital world had
come at a high cost.
When I began research on this book, I felt an immediate and
unexpected connection with many people who had grown up in Appalachian
coal towns. Many of them had fled the world they grew up in (as I had) and
looked back on it with a particular kind of sorrow that was very familiar to me.
This note from Jennifer Stock, a thirty-five-year-old West Virginia native who
now lives in Seattle, is typical:
I grew up in Logan, West Virginia. When I was a teenager, I would go up on
Blair Mountain to party. There was a tall fire lookout tower on the top that
was great fun to climb. You could see so many ridges from it; the hills just
went on and on. Last time I tried to go back there, a few years ago, there
were all sorts of fences in the way. The coal companies are as ruthless to
the environment now as they used to be toward their "employees." Strip
mining and "mountain top removal" are turning the area into a landscape from
hell, and to add insult to injury, the profits reaped from these efforts still
completely elude the inhabitants of the land. And then these people are
blamed for their ignorance and poverty because it is easier for their fellow
citizens to think that the ugliness is due to individual moral failing ("lazy
rednecks") than [to] the economic system in which we all participate, by
which we are all culpable.
Until I was forty years old, I had never seen a lump of coal. As a
kid, I'd visited hydroelectric dams in the Sierra Nevada foothills and wind
farms above San Francisco Bay. These sights made generating electricity
seem easy and natural, like growing wheat or getting a suntan. It gave me
the idea—one that I clung to for years—that it really didn't matter if I left the
light on in the other room, because it just meant the water turbines and the
windmills had to spin a little longer. Of course, this is precisely the kind of
blue-state ignorance that red staters scorn, and justifiably so, since the red
states often bear the burden of the blue states' cluelessness. (Half the
electricity in Los Angeles, for example, is imported from coal-fired power
plants in Nevada and New Mexico.) But it is also the kind of cluelessness
that power companies have spent years encouraging. If you doubt this, just
try deciphering the spinning wheels on the electric meter outside your house.
Power companies figured out long ago that the more they isolate consumers
from the true costs and consequences of their kilowatts, the more successful
the companies will be.
I lost my innocence in the summer of 2001, when the New York
Times Magazine sent me down to West Virginia to write about the surprising
comeback of coal during the early days of the Bush administration.
I began my research by visiting one of the largest mines in West
Virginia, Hobet 21, which is owned by Arch Coal, the second-biggest coal
company in America. When I pulled up to the mine gate, I was a few minutes
early for my meeting with a mine engineer, so I got out of the car and
wandered around. Down by the railroad tracks, I confronted a large pile of the
most beautiful black rocks I had ever seen. They were black beyond black
and seemed to pull the light out of the sky around them. It took me a
moment to realize that these rocks were coal.
Over the next several weeks, I visited several coal mines and
talked with the engineers who worked in them. I drove to Cabin Creek, a
narrow valley south of Charleston, West Virginia, where, in 1913, mining
company thugs opened fire with Gatling guns on their own workers. I flew in a
small plane over the southern coalfields, getting a bird's-eye view of the
devastation wrought by mountaintop removal mining. I visited filled-in creeks
and drove around with a local politician who explained to me with a straight
face that flattening West Virginia was actually a good thing, because the
state needed more level ground for golf courses.
All of this was quite eye-opening to me. I felt as if I had stumbled
into the gritty underbelly of modern life, the dark, dirty place where the real
work is done and the real deals are cut.
The most memorable moment of that trip—and, in some ways,
the real beginning of this book—was a dinner I had with Bill Raney, the head
of the powerful West Virginia Coal Association. We met at the bar at the
Marriott hotel in Charleston, not far from Raney's office. Raney is a short,
dapper man with a folksy West Virginia drawl. He was dressed that night in
an expensive suit and nice tie, looking more like a Beltway politician than a
man who grew up in a coal camp. It was less than a year after the 2000
election, and Raney's Beltway credentials were at an all-time high after his
having helped deliver the state of West Virginia—and the Oval Office—to
But it wasn't Raney's political connections that impressed me.
Nor was it his defense of mountaintop removal mining as a necessary evil if
West Virginia is to compete with coal mines in other states. It was what he
said about technology. "The thing that people don't realize," Raney
drawled, "is that if it weren't for coal, there would be no Internet, no Microsoft,
no Yahoo!" He leaned over his dinner plate. "Did you know that it takes more
electricity to charge up a Palm than it does to run an ordinary refrigerator?
And that every time you order a book from Amazon, you burn over three
pounds of coal?"
I didn't know that. Later, I would find out that his calculations were
wildly exaggerated. But his larger point about the interconnectedness of the
dirty life of the mines and the sparkly pixels on my computer screen was
correct. What Raney was really saying to me, I understood later, was this:
You use a computer. You have lights in your house. You watch TV. You are
implicated in all of this.
We all are.
I spent three years researching and writing this book. I visited coal mines and
power plants in ten states, as well as in China. I rode coal trains across the
Great Plains, detonated 55,000 pounds of explosives in Wyoming, and spent
a month on a research vessel in the North Atlantic with scientists who were
studying climate change. As it turned out, the three years I spent on this
book were three of the four hottest years on record. When I started my
research, an energy industry consultant joked with me that a ferocious
hurricane would have to wipe out New Orleans before America would wake up
to the dangers of global warming. By the time I finished the book, that
hurricane had arrived, although the awakening had not.
During those three years, about 3 billion tons of coal went up in
smoke in America. They created light and heat for much of the nation (not to
mention the glow on my computer screen even now as I write). But during
those years, the American Lung Association calculates, about 72,000 people
in the United States died prematurely from the effects of coal-fired power
plant pollution—more than from AIDS, murder, or drug overdose.
Obviously, there's no free power lunch: nukes can melt down,
dams flood valleys, and wind turbines kill birds. Building the modern world is
fraught with tradeoffs. But unlike in China or India, it's hard to argue that by
burning coal to create electricity, America is lifting millions out of poverty and
introducing them to hot showers and cold Cokes. Our affection for coal is
essentially an old habit and an indulgence. At best, it's a short-term solution
to a long-term problem. And the price of this indulgence may be higher than
any economist can calculate. Wally Broecker, the great climatologist at
Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has compared the
earth's climate to a dragon: when you poke it, you can never be sure how it's
going to react. As Broecker says, "We're playing with the whole planet,
dammit, just to get energy for a few hundred years."
Working on this book, I came to understand that when we talk
about energy, what we are really talking about is how we live and what we
value. Are we willing to put the earth's climate at risk to save ten bucks on
our utility bills? To what degree do we want energy corporations to control our
access to power? Is it more important to protect yesterday's jobs or to create
a new industry for tomorrow? What degree of sacrifice are we willing to make
in our lifestyles to ensure the well-being of our children and grandchildren?
The coal industry, of course, would rather keep the conversation focused on
the price of electricity per kilowatt-hour and the stockholders' return on
investment. Coal is a commodity business, after all, one that is run mostly
by number crunchers who see the world as a spreadsheet to conquer.
Questions about the price of progress, and how we draw the line between
what is acceptable to us as a rich, modern society and what is not, do not fit
easily into these calculations.
This problem is as old as our love affair with coal. In 1893, the
Chicago World's Fair gave many Americans their first view of the miraculous
dynamos that turned coal into clean, bright incandescent light. Among the
fair's 23 million visitors was Henry Adams, a well-traveled writer and historian
from a prominent Massachusetts family. (His grandfather and great-
grandfather were both presidents, and his brother ran the Union Pacific
railroad.) For Adams, the sight of the coal-fired dynamos was a sign that
American life was about to change irrevocably. He felt the forty-foot dynamos
as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. And it
frightened him. As Adams put it, "Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the
question whether the American people knew where they were driving."
A few words about the organization of this book. I've structured it in three
sections that roughly track the life cycle of coal. The first, called "The Dig,"
deals with the mining and transportation of coal. The second, titled "The
Burn," is about the politics of coal-burning power plants and the health effects
of air pollution. The final section, called "The Heat," is about coal's role in
climate change and how the industry intends to meet (or not meet) this
formidable challenge. By organizing the book this way, I hope to give a sense
of the broad impact that coal has on our lives. Too often, debates about
energy degenerate into arcane discussions about the regulatory minutiae of
sulfur dioxide emissions or flaws in the mathematical algorithms used to
calculate changes in the earth's average temperature over the past
millennium. But coal is not just a form of energy subject to scientific
measurement. It is a hidden world unto itself—a world with its own economy,
subcultures, and values, yet one whose influence can be felt in every aspect
of our lives.
Like every writer, I bring my own baggage to this book. For the
record, I am not a member of any environmental organization and never have
been. My biases are less political than entrepreneurial. The Silicon Valley
town I grew up in may have been full of greedy strivers, but you can't say
they lacked vision or a willingness to tackle tough problems. Writing this
book, I found myself exploring a world that is the inverse of my hometown, a
place where instead the goal often seems to be to explain why a problem
can't be solved, or why it's too expensive to solve, or to spin problems into
nonproblems. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't lots of well-meaning
people in the coal industry or that many of the engineers I met aren't brilliant.
Keeping the lights on in a nation of 300 million people is a job
that's as challenging and complex in its own way as putting a man on the
moon. I mean simply that from the industry's point of view, the goal of
technological change is never to reinvent the wheel; it is to figure out new
ways to keep the old wheels rolling. This is hardly surprising— what industry
plots its own obsolescence? But for me, experiencing the coal industry was
a bizarre inversion of the can-do optimism I'd grown up with. I sometimes felt
I had stumbled upon a group of mad scientists frantically scheming to invent
their own industrial fountain of youth.
Throughout this book, I frequently use the phrase "Big Coal" as
shorthand for the alliance of coal mining companies, coal-burning utilities,
railroads, lobbying groups, and industry supporters that make the coal
industry such a political force in America. The phrase is not meant to
suggest that the industry is monolithic, or that they all meet together in
smoke-filled rooms to cut deals and hammer out grand strategies. Obviously,
there are diverse players in the industry, with diverse points of view. You will
meet many of them in this book. But it is also true that the coal industry, like
the auto industry, the oil industry, the telecommunications industry, and just
about every other multibillion-dollar industry, can be identified by certain
common goals and pursuits. The phrase "Big Coal" is meant to suggest that
commonality, as well as to remind the reader of the power and influence of
the players who are involved.
Finally, a word about the many coal miners, power plant
engineers, and railroad workers I met in the course of reporting this book.
Whatever criticisms I may have of Big Coal, none of it should be taken as a
sign of disrespect for the difficult, dangerous work done by these men and
women on the frontlines. Keeping America powered up is not an easy job,
and the people who do it deserve our admiration and our thanks. They
certainly have mine.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton
Meet the Author
JEFF GOODELL is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith. Goodell’s memoir, Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, was a New York Times Notable Book. His most recent book, Big Coal, is the basis of an upcoming feature documentary, Dirty Business.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Big Coal does an excellent job of exploding many of the myths about coal, and shows why our continued dependence on it is such an enormous problem. The book is a thoughtful combination of reporting and analysis -- he goes into coal mines, hangs out a power plants, meets with CEOs, and at the same time grapples with big issues like global warming and the lobbying power of the coal industry. Highly recommended to anyone trying to make sense of America's energy problems.
The book sees every item in the Coal world as related to the unfounded concept of 'Global Warming' or the ever popular The Sky is Falling Henny Penny'.' The hope appears to be we (the people of earth) can find a solution that uses coal in a 'cash for carbon' scheme that as any child in China can tell you will not work (if you do not believe the child ask his goverment). It seems from time to time as one reads possible, a plan will be revealed but that is not the real point of the book? The real point is global warming bad! 3 years of reasearch that is a lot of research 244-notations in all but no knowledge is gained or at least imparted to the hungry reader? The effort fails to do more than to turn it's own belief system, a pitiful agenda at best, into a boring single note opera without a fact in sight. You are left with the feeling the book came from the awful PG&E story board used to make their never ending trite commercials. Please stop schreaming Sun, Wind, Water, and do somthing with the aforementioned elements. I bought this book in the hope of learning about improving our energy use but in the end I feel used by the concepts endlessly touted in the tome. Jeff Goodell writes very well for 'Rolling Stone' perhaps he should stay with a subject he understands and an audience that wears it's collective Ludite hat backwards, Leaving serious writing to serious writers.