Why did you decide to write a book about coal?
In the spring of 2001, the New York Times Magazine sent me down to West Virginia to write about the comeback of the coal industry. Coal had played an important role in the election of George W. Bush in 2000 West Virginia, an important coal state which hadn't voted Republican in many years, was widely credited with giving Bush his margin of victory and it was clear that coal would play an increasingly important role in America's energy future. But visiting West Virginia was an eye-opening experience for me, in part because, like many Americans, I'd naively assumed that coal had gone out with top hats and corsets. I was astonished to learn that the United States burns more than a billion tons of coal a year, mostly to generate electricity. More than half our electric power comes from coal-fired power plants. In West Virginia, I got a close look at the high cost of our dependence on coal not just the hundreds of square miles of mountains that have been decapitated by strip mines in the southern part of the state, but also the poverty and hardship that I witnessed in many coal-mining towns. I began to ask some obvious questions: Why is the richest, most powerful nation on earth still burning black rocks for power? Why is it that we've figured out how to unravel DNA, clone sheep, and build a global communications network that allows me to send a photo of my dog to a friend in China in a few seconds, but we can't figure out a way to generate electricity that doesn't wreck the planet?
How much coal does America have?
A lot. The coal industry likes to call America "the Saudi Arabia of coal." The U.S. Department of Energy's official estimate of recoverable coal is about 270 billion tons. At the rate we're going, that's enough for about 250 years. The question is, what will it take in economic, environmental, and human terms to get that coal out of the ground? We've been mining coal in America for more than 150 years now all the easy-to-get stuff is gone. Much of the coal that's left is of poorer quality or it's in thinner, more deeply buried seams. Getting it out is not only more environmentally destructive, but more dangerous, too.
How safe is coal mining?
That's like asking how safe it is to be a police officer. If you're patrolling a shopping mall in Beverly Hills, you probably don't have much to worry about. If you're working on an undercover drug sting in the Bronx, you had better be ready for anything. Similarly, driving a haul truck in a big strip mine in Wyoming's Powder River basin is no more dangerous than any other job involving heavy machinery. But if you're cutting coal in a small, underground mine in Appalachia miners call them "dogholes" the odds that you'll be hurt or killed increase dramatically. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, mining is still one of the most dangerous jobs in America, and working in a small underground mine is one of the few jobs that is nearly as dangerous as commercial fishing in Alaska. In addition, hundreds of miners still die each year from black lung a devastating disease that should have been eradicated long ago.
What is "clean coal"?
It's a promotional slogan designed to help spiff up coal's image from a relic of the nineteenth century to a viable fuel source for the twenty-first century. But all you have to do is spend a few hours in southern West Virginia, where coal mining has blasted away the mountains and old men sit alone in diners gasping for air with coal-blackened lungs, to understand that "clean coal" is not just an oxymoron, but an insult to the very real suffering that our dependence on coal causes.
That said, it's indisputably true that the coal-fired power plants that are being built today are much cleaner than the coal plants that were built thirty years ago. And the electric power industry is rightly proud of the progress that has been made in many parts of the country when it comes to cleaning up the air. Despite these improvements, however, the American Lung Association estimates that 27,000 people a year still die prematurely as a result of pollution from coal-fired power plants. Coal-fired power plants are also the largest emitters of mercury in the United States, releasing forty-eight tons of this potent neurotoxin each year. Combustion wastes from coal plants fly ash, scrubber sludge are also a significant environmental and public health concern.
But the biggest problem with touting "clean coal" is that it ignores the elephant in the room: carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that is responsible for global warming.
How large a role does coal play in global warming?
Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels, and it is not an overstatement to say that 200 years of coal burning by industrialized nations is largely responsible for the fact that carbon dioxide levels in the earth's atmosphere are higher than they've been in the past 650,000 years. Today, about 40 percent of the U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide come from burning coal. To put that in perspective, one big coal-burning power plant I visited in Georgia emits about four times as much carbon dioxide as all the cars and trucks built by the Ford Motor Company in a single year. More important, if the new generation of combustion coal plants that are being planned right now not just in the United States, but also around the world actually get built, we can pretty much kiss the chances for a stable climate goodbye.
Fortunately, there are better ways of extracting energy from coal. One emerging technology, which gasifies coal rather than simply burning it, might someday allow carbon dioxide to be captured and sequestered in underground reservoirs. But of the 120 or so new coal plants that are currently being planned in the United States, only a handful use this technology.
Can coal help us reduce our dependence on oil from the Middle East?
To some degree, perhaps. Right now, most coal consumed in America is used for electricity generation which really has nothing to do with oil from the Middle East. But there is a growing interest in so-called coal refineries that can transform coal into synthetic diesel fuel. (For chemical reasons, coal can't be easily transformed into synthetic gasoline.) The technology is well established it was pioneered, in fact, by the Nazis during World War II. But there are major drawbacks. Even a small refinery costs billions of dollars to construct. In addition, depending on the type of technology that is used, coal refineries can result in even higher greenhouse gas emissions than diesel fuel that is brewed in a traditional refinery. Investment in coal refineries also takes money and interest away from more sustainable and creative solutions to dependence on oil from the Middle East, such as plug-in hybrid cars and biofuels. This does not mean that coal refineries are necessarily a bad idea. It just means that they're not a cheap or easy solution to America's energy problems.
In the epilogue of your book, you call the coal industry "an empire of denial." What does that mean?
The main reason we're still burning over a billion tons of coal in America today is that the coal industry has been tremendously successful at keeping us ignorant about what goes on behind the light switch. It has worked hard to preserve the illusion that electricity flows down from a golden bowl in the sky, and that there is no link between America's appetite for power and the millions of children in America who suffer from asthma, or the devastated mountains of West Virginia, or the fact that global warming threatens the stability of the earth's atmosphere. In this sense, the comeback of coal is a political story. It's about keeping America in the dark about what it takes to keep the lights on. I think that's one reason why the recent deaths of fourteen coal miners in West Virginia was so disturbing to many people. Coal miners labor underground, often in extremely dangerous and difficult conditions, so that the rest of us can crank up our heaters and air conditioners.
The truth is, the world faces two enormous challenges in the coming years: the end of cheap oil and the arrival of global warming. Both are profound threats to our comfortable notions of civilized life. We should be grateful for the vast reserves of coal we have left and use them wisely, but it's important to recognize that our bounty of coal is not going to save us from anything. At best, exploiting our coal reserves will buy us a decade or two of time and come at enormous expense, both in terms of the environment and public health and in terms of the billions of dollars that will be invested in a fuel source that is, at best, a short-term solution. In many ways, the world's coal reserves only make our energy problems worse, because they give us a false sense of security: If we run out of gas and oil, we can just switch over to coal; if we can figure out a way to "clean" coal, we can have a cheap, plentiful source of energy. In reality, however, facing the twin challenges of the end of oil and the coming of global warming is going to require reinventing the infrastructure of modern life. The most dangerous aspect of our continued dependence on coal is not what it does to our lungs, our mountains, or even our climate, but what it does to our minds: it preserves the illusion that we don't have to change our thinking.