Books: Warming Trends

Two new books illuminate the politics and perils of coal energy and the emerging science behind global climate change

By Richard Bradley

WHEN THINKING ABOUT SEX, or places in which to have it, a coal mine is not the first locale that comes to mind. So it was curious when about a year ago General Electric began airing a racy TV ad touting the seductive power of coal. Shot in sensual sepia, the ad featured a group of young, sexy men and women striking sweaty poses in what appeared to be a coal mine (it was actually a set). “Imagine,” said an off-screen narrator, “if a 250-year supply of energy were right here at home.” Cut to a gorgeous model staring down the camera. “Harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day."

As journalist Jeff Goodell argues in his important new book, Big Coal, GE’s ad is part of a larger campaign by mining companies, trans-continental railroads, coal-fired electric utilities, and their bought-and-paid for representatives to portray coal as the future of an energy-independent United States. The premise of that scenario? The United States possesses more coal than any other country—we are, as Goodell puts it, “the Saudi Arabia of coal”—and in a post-9/11 world, the prospect of an energy source free of Mid East entanglements, along with enough energy for a quarter-millennium, sounds pretty appealing. That’s why President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union speech followed his declaration that “America is addicted to oil” with a call for $2 billion into research on “clean coal technologies.” The United States, Bush said, has enough coal to last for 200 years.

Is coal the answer to our energy problems? It would be nice to think so. But as Goodell shows, the truth about coal is not only more complicated than President Bush would suggest, it has also been manipulated, covered up, or just plain ignored for decades by those who profit from the coal economy. That 250-year figure mentioned in the GE ad, for example, is little better than a guesstimate from a 1974 survey by a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. Much, maybe most, of the coal in the United States is either too difficult to mine or of too poor quality to be economically feasible.

Certainly we depend on coal more than we realize. About half the electricity Americans use comes from coal, and Goodell says that the average American consumes about 20 pounds of the stuff every day. Meanwhile, coal capitalists push the idea that their product brings Americans cheap and “increasingly clean” energy, and the White House has proposed building hundreds of new coal-burning power plants.

But the real price of coal is far more than what shows up on our monthly electric bill. It is the devastation coal mining wreaks on the American landscape; the disease and premature death associated with that mining and with the emissions from coal burning; the political corruption coal profits buy; and the planetary trauma that global warming will effect. Statistics on the health effects of coal are hard to come by, but since 1900 more than 100,000 Americans have been killed in coal mine accidents, and Goodell says that another 200,000 miners have died from black lung disease. Meanwhile, the environmental devastation is horrific: in Appalachia alone, the waste from coal mining has destroyed 700 miles of rivers and streams and transformed 400,000 acres of forest into sterile flatland. Buying coal-powered electricity turns out not to be such a bargain after all.

Grim news, yes. But the story of coal does make an unexpectedly lively read, considering its lethal and inanimate protagonist. Goodell muckrakes in the tradition of Ida Tarbell, Rachel Carson, and Eric Schlosser, leading us confidently, if ruefully, on a tour through the world of coal, from the “dig” to the “burn” to the “heat.” Goodell takes us to places most of us will never see (and probably don’t want to). He visits a woman whose West Virginia home is constantly threatened by flash floods thanks to such coal mining techniques as “mountain-top removal” and “valley fills” (both exactly what they sound like). He travels to a Wyoming mine to help blow up 55,000 pounds of explosives—“the earth lifted like a giant blanket beneath my feet”—which are used to break up the ground for easier coal extraction. He rides a milelong coal train on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line to explain not only how coal is hauled across the country but also why railroad conglomerates have such a powerful interest in promoting the use of coal.

The one place, sadly, to which Goodell can not gain entry is the White House. Nonetheless, it is still disturbing to read about how much Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret energy commission and its recommendations were influenced by the fact that his home state, Wyoming, may contain more coal than any other state. (And, to be sure, it’s not only Republicans who are peddling coal; Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, is pushing coal as an economic remedy for his struggling state.)

As Cheney and other coal capitalists surely know, most Americans never think about coal. We turn on our air conditioners and flip on our lights without considering the real source of that power—the atmospheredestroying utilities, the continent-crossing railroads, the earth-scarring mines, their human casualties. Big Coal shows the true cost of our ignorance.

Issue 25

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