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Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Futureby Jeff Goodell
Synopses & Reviews
In the tradition of Rachel Carson and Eric Schlosser, the veteran journalist Jeff Goodell examines the danger behind President George W. Bush's recent assertion that coal is America's economic destiny.
Despite a devastating, century-long legacy that has claimed millions of lives and ravaged the environment, coal has become hot again, and will likely get hotter. In this penetrating analysis, Goodell debunks the faulty assumptions underlying coal's revival and shatters the myth of cheap coal energy. In a compelling blend of hard-hitting investigative reporting, history, and industry assessment, Goodell illuminates the stark economic imperatives America faces and the collusion of business and politics (what is meant by big coal) that have set us on the dangerous course toward reliance on this energy source.
Few of us realize that even today we burn a lump of coal every time we flip on a switch. Coal already supplies more than half the energy needed to power our iPods, laptops, lights: anything we use that consumes electricity. Our desire to find a homegrown alternative to Mideast oil, the rising cost of oil and natural gas, and the fossil fuel-friendly mood in Washington will soon push our coal consumption through the roof. Because we have failed to develop alternative energy sources, coal has effectively become the default fuel for the twenty-first century.
"After a generation out of the spotlight, coal has reasserted its centrality: the United States 'burn[s] more than a billion tons' per year, and since 9/11 and the Iraq war, independence from foreign oil has become positively patriotic. Rolling Stone contributing editor Goodell's last book, the bestselling Our Story, was about a mine accident, which clearly made a deep impression on him. Our reliance on coal — the unspoken foundation of our 'information' economy — has, Goodell says, led to an 'empire of denial' that blocks us from the investments necessary to find alternative energy sources that could eventually save us from fossil fuel. Goodell's description of the mining-related deaths, the widespread health consequences of burning coal and the impact on our planet's increasingly fragile ecosystem make for compelling reading, but such commonplace facts are not what lift this book out of the ordinary. That distinction belongs to Goodell's fieldwork, which takes him to Atlanta, West Virginia, Wyoming, China and beyond — though he also has a fine grasp of the less tangible niceties of the industry. Goodell understands how mines, corporate boardrooms, commodity markets and legislative chambers interrelate to induce a national inertia. Goodell has a talent for pithy argument — and the book fairly crackles with informed conviction. (June 8)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In January, the nation watched, transfixed, as 13 coal miners were trapped underground at West Virginia's Sago mine, only to learn that all but one had perished. That same month, four other men lost their lives in Appalachian mines. Five more miners were killed in May in an underground blast in southeastern Kentucky, bringing this year's fatalities to more than 30 and adding to a mining-related death... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) toll that has risen to more than 100,000 since the start of the 20th century. Even that grim total, however, pales in comparison to the number of Americans who die prematurely each year from the fine-particle pollution emanating from the coal-fired power plants these miners supply with fuel: 24,000 each year, according to the American Lung Association. That toll — coupled with the impact that the burning of fossil fuels is having on the Earth's climate — must be weighed against the cheap electricity that coal has given us for nearly 150 years. Jeff Goodell's new 'Big Coal' explores this tension in depth, comparing Americans' energy habits to the behavior of a Bowery junkie: 'We keep telling ourselves it's time to come clean, without ever actually doing it.' The book's strength lies in Goodell's ability to connect our mundane daily activities, such as flipping on the living room lights and powering up our laptops, with the grimy business that powers these things. '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,' Goodell writes. 'We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks.' The developing world's relationship with coal is even grimier, he reports; like such environmentalist authors as Lester Brown, Goodell examines how the voracious appetite for coal of China's booming industries will affect the planet we share in the coming decades. It's hard to write a lively book about the coal industry, but Goodell, a Rolling Stone contributing editor and the author of 'Our Story,' a book about a 2002 mine accident, has managed to pull it off. His evocative prose carries the narrative from rural West Virginia to the Georgia state legislature and a small Chinese village, with plenty of stops in between. (One of his best lines: 'The Georgia legislative session is forty days of big hats, big bellies, and big cigars.') The author runs into trouble only when his breezy, arch tone seems a touch jarring, as it does when he observes, 'If the sorry history of the coal mining industry has proven one thing, it's that when it comes to enacting and enforcing safety laws against Big Coal, the only good lobbyists are dead miners.' The story also bogs down in the middle of the book when Goodell details the excruciatingly slow federal regulatory process for power plants, which is simply impossible to relate in a scintillating way. In general, Goodell is sensitive to his subjects, whether they're the miners who pry coal from the earth or the hapless residents living near a power plant and breathing in the rock's fumes. (He shows less sympathy for coal industry officials, who appear only intermittently throughout the book and usually in an unflattering light.) One of the most heartbreaking passages focuses on Charlotte O'Rourke, who moved to Masontown, Pa., with her husband, Donald, in the 1970s and stayed even though it now houses 'one of the dirtiest coal plants in America,' Hatfield's Ferry, run by Allegheny Energy. At 56, Donald O'Rourke came down with a rare form of kidney cancer and died less than a year later; his widow decided to stay but never looked at her surroundings the same way. 'You really don't have to be a scientist to see what's going on around here,' she told Goodell a few months before she was diagnosed with precancerous cells in her esophagus. 'We live under the plume, and people are sick and people are dying. I mean, how complicated is it, really?' Goodell doesn't offer much in the way of solutions, though he briefly explores the virtues of e-hybrid cars, which use larger batteries and an electrical outlet to save on gas and emit less carbon dioxide, and a new technology that 'goes by the unfortunately complicated name of integrated gasification combined cycle,' a coal-burning process that produces less waste than traditional methods and allows plant operators to capture carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere. Still, 'Big Coal' gives its readers a clear sense of the trade-offs we face in our feverish quest for inexpensive energy, and that's more than enough for one book. Juliet Eilperin is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of 'Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the U.S. House of Representatives.'" Reviewed by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Goodell injects relevant statistics...that effectively personalize the reader's connection to an industry most ignore until a power outage." Booklist
"Without overloading the reader...Goodell does a first-rate job of balancing environmental concerns with interviews from the human faces associated with 'Big Coal'....Highly recommended..." Library Journal
"Goodell is right to say that the coal economy is little documented and not well understood, but his book makes a welcome corrective. Eye-opening and provocative." Kirkus Reviews
"Mr. Goodell, in this well-written, timely and powerful book, makes it crystal clear what the stakes are." William Grimes, The New York Times
Long dismissed as a relic of a bygone era, coal is back — with a vengence. 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.
About the Author
Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor at 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, based on the terrifying hours nine Quecreek miners spent trapped underground; he appeared on Oprah to talk with the miners about their experience. Goodell's first book, The Cyberthief and the Samurai, was about the hunt for the notorious computer hacker Kevin Mitnick. His memoir, Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, was a New York Times Notable Book.
Table of Contents
I THE DIG
II THE BURN
III THE HEAT
Epilogue: An Empire of Denial 249
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