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Book Review: Big Coal

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future by Jeff Goodell

One of the triumphs of modern life is our ability to distance ourselves from the simple facts of our own existence. – Jeff Goodell

Big Coal by Jeff Goodell is a book I have had on my reading list for a long time, but I only got around to reading it during my recent trip to Europe. It has taken me a very long time to finish this review for a number of reasons, but one is that I had a hard time deciding what to write. Normally, when I read a book I will dog-ear the pages that I want to revisit either because 1). There was something significant that I did not know; or 2). I want to reference a particular point in the book review. By the time I finished reading this book, I probably had 50 pages dog-eared.

My introduction to Jeff Goodell came a couple of years ago when he was writing an article for Rolling Stone about ethanol. He contacted me and we talked a few times, I got to know him a bit, and he published a pretty scathing article during the early days of the ethanol euphoria. For more on that episode, see Rolling Stone Article, Jeff Goodell Debates the Rolling Stone Article on CNBC, or Bob Dinneen Responds to Rolling Stone.

I wish I could write like Goodell. I really enjoy his writing style. I sometimes disagree with particular points, but in Big Coal he makes a very compelling argument that we don’t come close to paying the societal costs of coal usage when we pay our electric bill.

Even though we don’t often see it, coal is a part of daily life for most of us. It produces a great deal of our electricity. But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the implications. As Goodell notes on the first page, “We love our hamburgers, but we’ve never seen the inside of a slaughterhouse.” Isn’t that the truth? I have always imagined the number of people who would become vegetarians if they ever saw the inner workings of a slaughterhouse.

When we fuel up our cars, we don’t think (much) about the ramifications of our oil dependence. When we flip a light switch, we do not associate that with the coal-driven mountaintop removals in West Virginia. In this book, Goodell thrusts those associations right in your face.

The book is divided into three parts: Extraction, conversion to power, and the resulting emissions. He covers the history of the industry, tells the stories of the people in and around the business, and while most of the book is based on U.S.-happenings, he does spend a chapter on China.

I would imagine the coal industry was none too pleased with Big Coal, because it paints a really ugly picture of the industry.  Goodell contrasts the coal industry with the individuals whose lives have been negatively impacted by coal in one way or another. He details corruption and politics that allowed the industry to delay implementation of pollution control equipment. And on a big picture level, he argues that continued usage of coal poses a serious threat to the earth’s climate.

This book will leave you shaking your head, wondering why we use coal at all if the overall picture is as troublesome as Goodell suggests. I found myself wondering as well, which was actually what led to my post on the cost of various energy sources. There at the top of the list for the cheapest source of energy was Powder River Basin coal, which is why we continue to heavily use coal despite the issues Goodell spells out.

We humans aren’t very good at willingly making sacrifices today in order to potentially improve the situation a few years down the line. We want instant gratification and coal fits the bill. (I would argue this is also why the U.S. is so deeply in debt and our personal savings rate is so low.)

I noted in my book review of Crude World that Peter Maass didn’t present a balanced picture of the oil industry; it was all bad. His book was intended to highlight the negative aspect of our oil dependency. Big Coal is the same in that respect. It is hard to argue that coal hasn’t improved the lives of a great many people around the world, and I know a number of people who would argue that these improvements outweigh the negatives. Further, it is fair to say that the coal industry has come a long way in cleaning up their emission profile over the past few decades.

But it is clear which side of that argument Goodell would come down on. To be honest, I come down on that side as well. I would like to see us limit our coal consumption and boost electricity generation from other resources. I know a great number of people who feel this way, but coal is like oil in that replacing it will likely entail economic sacrifices that individuals don’t like to make. Coal produces half of the electricity in the U.S., and I would have a hard time arguing that anything – outside of nuclear power – can scale up and take on the role that coal currently plays.

The realist in me thinks that we will eventually use up all of our coal, as will China, Australia, India, and all of the other major coal producers. This is primarily why I sit out the debates on climate change; I can’t realistically envision anything that will get the world to collectively NOT burn up all the coal. In an energy-constrained future, prices will rise and people who feel morally opposed to coal will suddenly find their moral fiber weakening as high energy prices bite into their budgets.

I don’t discount that renewable energy can eventually make a bigger impact (I hope so, because that’s what I am doing for a living), but it is starting from a very small basis compared to electricity generated from coal. While coal produces about half of the electricity in the U.S., renewables other than hydropower account for only about 3.5% (per the EIA).

So I think Big Coal will continue to be a very big part of our lives for many years to come – although with a strong political commitment the nuclear option could put a dent in our coal dependence.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | book review, coal, Jeff Goodell, nuclear energy | 142 Comments