Environment & the World

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Big Coal, the Book

Filed under: Books, Energy — amirj @ 5:13 pm

Earlier today I saw Jeff Goodell talk about his latest book, Big Coal, on C-Span’s BookTV. Goodell, who today is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and also contributes to the New York Times Magazine, grew up in Silicon Valley with no affiliation with the environmental movement. The idea for this book began after a trip to the West Viriginia coal mines on behalf of the New York Times Magazine to cover the rising fortune of the coal industry after Bush announced his new energy plan several years ago, in which he touted “clean coal” technologies to power the U.S. in the coming century. Having grown up in the Silicon Valley cradle of technology, which often takes for granted an abundant supply of electricity–divorced from concerns over where, how, and at what cost it receives it, Goodell turns precisely to those concerns in this book with regard to coal-generated power.

Goodell spent several years visiting coal mines across the country and researching the book. In it, he reflects upon the politics, economics, environmental and human health reprocussions of coal. With regard to the former concerns, he discusses the history of coal, its widespread availability in the U.S., and its business and political connections. The latter concerns, however cause Goodell to raise questions about coal and ultimately question whether or not this source of energy that powered the 19th and 20th century ought to power the 21st century as well.

Interestingly, while Goodell acknowledges that coal power plants can indeed be built to emit minimal emissions and to sequester most of the carbon dioxide, his critique of coal persists due to unresolved problems: environmentally harmful mountain-top removal techniques, the human toll on miners’ health, and the socio-economic grip that coal industries have on many mining towns. For these reasons, the research and writing of the book have turned Goodell into a critic of President Bush’s energy policy, as is evident in “The Fake Energy Solution,” a piece he wrote earlier this year for the Rolling Stone.

Goodell also inevitably points out the role coal plays in contributing to global warming–another reason why he is not a fan of coal. Despite ample praise for his book, some critics such as Corey S. Powell in his NY Times review of the book accuse Goodell of falling short on proposing viable energy alternatives to coal. Powell writes,

“Goodell’s writing, so fiery and committed through the narrative parts of ‘Big Coal,’ turns oddly tentative when it comes time to endorse solutions. He waves off green dreams like wind and solar electricity. He pins much of his hopes on a kind of national psychotherapy program to ‘change our thinking’ and ‘make the invisible visible,’ which translates into a vague endorsement of new emissions taxes and regulations.”

However, after decades of pushing for its “green dreams” of solar and wind, the environmental movement’s energy dreams still remain mostly that–dreams. While Goodell’s actual suggestions in the book many not be the most novel nor inspiring, if some sort of “national psychotherapy program” is what Goodell believes this nation needs in order to reorient its energy future, he has taken on an important step: educating. If the book is taken for what it is–a thorough study of the place of coal in U.S. society–then it seems to do a good job of explaining the multifaceted reasons why burning coal to produce energy may not be the best plan for our energy future. And in these times, perhaps that education is better than yet another call for more wind and solar power that will fall on deaf ears or preach to a chorus that cannot change the status quo.

 More on Jeff Goodell and Big Coal:

In Goodell Company,” an interview at Grist.

Could Coal Make the U.S. Energy Independent?” an interview on NPR.


1 Comment »

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book. I wonder if there are any ways to improve the coal industry to deal with the problems he notes (mountaintop removal mining, health impacts for miners, etc). It seems unlikely that we will move away from coal extremely quickly, especially with carbon capture and sequestration technologies available. In fact, coal might end up being more attractive as the basis for a transportation fuel in the near future. As oil becomes scarcer, it is likely that we will start gasifying coal to make liquid transportation fuels. (This can be done with minimal climate impact, but of course it will exacerbate all of the negative impacts associated with coal mining).

    On an unrelated note, did you know that coal fires in China are responsible for 2-3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions? http://www.itc.nl/personal/coalfire/problem/china_coalfire.html
    Not all of these fires are a result of human activity, but it is a pretty interesting phenomenon and a staggering statistic …

    Comment by Cathy — Sunday, August 13, 2006 @ 9:10 pm

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