Big Coal: The Empire of Denial

This morning I said I’d have a review up of Jeff Goodell’s Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future up in a few days, but since I started reading the book yesterday, I literally have not been able to put it down. That’s a testament to Goodell’s skills as a writer, and the incredible stories he tells as he examines the role of coal in American growth over the past century and Chinese growth in the coming one. Along the way, Goodell tells the stories of miners, utility executives and global warming activists, among others, creating a very readable book on an incredibly complex subject.

I picked up the phrase “the empire of denial” from Goodell’s epilogue, and that’s essentially how “Big Coal” is characterized through the book: in denial of not only the human and environmental costs of their product, but also in denial about the inevitable waning of this energy source even as it’s seeing a renewal of interest in the US. A few executives tied in with coal production, primarily in the big utility companies, recognize that regulation of CO2 is coming, and think it’s in their best interest to get ahead of the curve by, at the very least, investing in new power plants that incorporate coal gasification and carbon sequestration technologies. By and large, though, the big utilities are building old-school dirty coal-burning plants (such as one going up in Southern Illinois) as quickly as possible to make a quick buck before regulation becomes a fact of life and requires the coal industry to internalize the costs it passes on, at least in terms of pollution. Yes, they’re incorporating the latest scrubbers and such into these new plants, but as Goodell notes, even these new “clean” plants will still emit tons of CO2, mercury, and combustion wastes such as fly ash, continuing Big Coal’s legacy as one of the biggest contributors to global warming and public health problems.

Goodell divides his book into three sections, each corresponding to a stage in the “lifecycle” of coal production and consumption: the first deals with mining, the second with burning the black rocks in power plants, and the third with the effects of emissions. Goodell’s choice to look at the full picture, from mine to power plant to disposing of wastes, as well as the exhaustive research he puts into each section, makes this book a bit overwhelming — in one sense, it mirrors recent books like James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency which examine how oil underlies almost every aspect of life in developed countries. Goodell’s take on the future is certainly much less dramatic than Kunstler’s, but he makes it clear that we’re on the threshold of big changes in how we produce energy in this country. The coal industry’s mantra has been “We’ll figure out the problems later when we’ve made technological advances to deal with them,” but Goodell makes clear that 1) some of the most promising technological advances are ready for commercial use, but the utility companies aren’t willing to spend the necessary money on them, and 2) we’re simply no longer in a position to put off facing the music on climate change and other environmental problems.

While looking at the big picture, Goodell never forgets that it’s individuals who pay some of the most horrific prices for our dependence on the cheap electricity provided by coal. We read stories about two of the miners rescued from the Quecreek, Pennsylvania mine disaster in 2002, a woman who’s family homestead has been devastated by the new floods produced by mountain top removal in the Appalachians, and a man in China’s poorest province who’s created his own methane digester to produce usable gas from his farm animals’ poop. The facts and statistics in this book are fascinating, but it’s the stories of individuals dealing with the past and present of Big Coal that really kept me turning pages.

This is an important book, especially as coal is experiencing a renaissance in the US. Goodell’s no pie-in-the-sky idealist: he recognizes we will be burning coal for the foreseeable future. At the same time, he makes it amply clear that if we choose to keep burning it as we always have, the costs we’ll face shortly down the road will dwarf the economic problems that that conservative politicians and their industrial sugar-daddies love to tout as a reason why we can’t regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The book will be available to buy on Thursday, June 8.

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