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Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Futureby Jeff Goodell
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 smoke rise 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 fields.
But like many revolutions, this one hasn’t progressed quite as planned.
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 chemicals.
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 burners.
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 and biodiesel.
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 bake sale. 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 President Bush.
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.
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