Big Coal | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Big Coal

By Jeff Goodell
Houghton Mifflin Company, 324 pp., $25.95 (hardback)



Here in Western Pennsylvania, during the Quecreek mining disaster, we chortled when King of All Media Howard Stern commented that he didn't know people still even mined coal.



Haw-haw ... dumb New Yorker. After all, some of us are only a generation or two removed from the mines. And we're all a short drive from billboards beckoning miners underground.


Pittsburghers daily see coal floating in river barges. But as author Jeff Goodell might note, that just means that when it comes to what that black rock is really all about, the only thing we have on Howard Stern is the luxury of hypocrisy.


Coal generates about half our electricity. Goodell's Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future intelligently and passionately outlines both that dependence and the inadequately publicized devastation that coal extraction and burning wreak on human health and the environment, with a special focus on global warming.


His book justly scorches Americans for denial about how we power our air conditioners. Yet ultimately, Goodell too fails to find a convincing way out of the energy trap he so eloquently describes.


Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, is a native Californian grown intimately familiar with Big Coal in this region. In 2001, The New York Times Magazine sent him to West Virginia to explore the coal industry's resurgence. He also edited Our Story, the Quecreek miners' account of their underground ordeal that year. And his reporting for Big Coal found him logging many miles locally, from old mining towns to some of the remarkably filthy power plants that dot our corner of the commonwealth.


His research, however, spans the continent. Goodell invites us to Wyoming ... one of the states that makes America "the Saudi Arabia of coal" ... where he pushes the detonator at a surface mine. In Bob White, W.Va., he visits a woman whose home is threatened by catastrophic mine runoff. There's also a coal-company Christmas handout in Madison, W.Va., where the perennial promise of coal jobs ... and the blackmailer's threat of cutting them ... has bred an approximately Third World economy. Goodell rides a coal train through Nebraska and explores a coal-fired Georgia power plant, partly to illustrate the political clout of the old and dirty industries that remain indispensable props for what Goodell calls "our shiny white iPod economy."


In a time of fear about energy self-sufficiency, coal is plentiful and relatively cheap. Its rebirth, Goodell says, manifests a culture war: the dig-and-burn mentality of centuries past holding progress hostage for a ransom of electrons.


Goodell is particularly good at showing how Big Coal avoids change. It's through deep pockets and the coal-friendly George W. Bush (whose presidential campaigns the industry generously backed). And so underground miners work in more dangerous conditions than they ought, and a White House rule-tweak accelerates mountaintop-removal mining, in which Appalachian mountains are blasted away and the debris dumped into stream beds. Goodell also revisits the fun fact that despite their emissions of lung-clogging particulates and the toxin mercury, the Bush administration has delisted coal plants as a source of hazardous air pollutants.


He also excels at big-picture economic analysis. One particularly neat cycle finds the low cost of mining coal in Wyoming pressuring Appalachian coal firms to bust unions and shear off those mountaintops. As a bonus, Western coal has a lower heat value ... meaning you have to burn more of it, thereby increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.


While his angriest tone is one of outraged reasonableness, Goodell is handy with a bitter aphorism, i.e.: "If the sorry history of the coal mining industry has proven one thing, it's that when it comes to enacting and enforcing safety laws against Big Coal, the only good lobbyists are dead miners."


Despite what your Duquesne Light bill says, in other words, Goodell makes us understand that electricity isn't cheap. Not, at least, so long as kilowatt price doesn't account for how generating electricity harms the planet, or raises health-care costs.


When it comes to solving such problems, as in defining them, Goodell admits an "entrepreneurial bias" ... one sprung, ironically enough, from his admiration for the electricity-dependent software revolution. Smart regulation, he argues, can spark entrepreneurship, as he contends 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act did by creating a market for the trading of "pollution credits" that helped reduce certain kinds of power-plant emissions. Accordingly, on global warming Goodell finds hope in schemes such as a pilot carbon-trading program in energy-hungry China.

But his proposed solutions are themselves admittedly problematic. Take CO2 sequestration ... the process of capturing carbon emissions from burning coal, then burying it to reduce greenhouse emissions. One, it's expensive. Two, it's untested. Three ... well, the earth leaks.

Goodell rips coal, railroads and power plants as hidebound industries. But he barely considers, for instance, that the problem might be mass society itself: a mode of living that demands ever-increasing consumption and growth. His faith in technology is tempered, but he still seems to believe in the possibility of economic prosperity for a growing global population ... as though that were achievable without continued and massive environmental destruction.


Moreover, reading Goodell's account of global warming ... or any sober reckoning of the phenomenon ... it is enormously difficult to escape the conclusion that it is already too late, especially in a country that hasn't bothered to raise automobile fuel-efficiency standards in a generation. Inevitably, perhaps, even Goodell's notes of optimism echo like distress calls in a caved-in mine.

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