The Scientific Activist

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future
by Jeff Goodell
Houghton Mifflin: 2006. 352 pages.
Buy now! (Amazon)

i-3fa68b285a8d8d69ec4bf0a1561e1062-big coal cover.gifCoal tends to inspire a few common images in our collective minds. Grizzled and hardened miners, working in deep, dark underground tunnels, piece by piece haul out the black feed needed to power the oversized, dirty, rumbling machines spewing out their noxious waste through tall smokestacks. In the process, these beasts power the rise of the world’s up and coming superpower, the US.

Dirty. Dangerous. Imprecise. Big…. Old school.

In the Twenty-First Century, in the age of supposedly clean energy powering friendly, sterile, white, and small consumer electronics, one would think coal today is about as relevant as the Victorian social attitudes that accompanied its rise. Even with “clean coal” finding a comfortable position as one of the Administration’s favorite buzzwords, surely this is something new, different, and completely unrelated.

Open up Jeff Goodell’s Big Coal, though, and you’ll be transported to a different world, one where miners work in constant danger, the public suffers from a nonstop stream of industrial pollution, and the coal giants continue to exert their political will in order to stall the progress we thought we had already made. It’s a world that we’d like to think is restricted to history textbooks and some of our favorite novels. But, this isn’t Dickens’ world. No, this is postmodern America, where our obsession with lighthearted gadgetry is still fueled by one dirty secret: coal.

Goodell divides his exposé into three sections–“The Dig”, “The Burn”, and “The Heat”–guiding the reader through the process by which coal is transformed from a rock in the ground into the pollutants in the air that we breath and, possibly more insidiously, into the carbon dioxide currently warming our globe to dangerous levels. Although each section covers a different topic, what emerges as a common theme is how the general irresponsibility of the coal industry has negative and tangible consequences for all of us. Just as disturbing as that revelation, though, is the fact that certain people will unfairly and very harshly bear a greater burden for this irresponsibility, particularly the people of the world’s developing nations and, back in the U.S., the residents of coal mining communities.

As Goodell focuses in on Appalachian mines, this latter group emerges as the victim in Big Coal’s opening section, “The Dig”. As their stories are told, however, these victims also become the section’s brave protagonists, from Maria Gunnoe–who stands up alone against a corporate giant whose mining practices are slowly destroying her property and putting her family in danger–to Randy Fogle–who continues working underground despite being one of the nine miners trapped for 77 hours after a water breakthrough in the Quecreek mine in July 2002.

The devastating power of coal over our everyday lives doesn’t become evident, though, until the second section, “The Burn”. Here, Goodell enumerates the various ways that burning coal has harmed our health and our environment. In one passage, the reader follows the story of Joel Schwartz, an energy analyst from the Reagan era who was the first to use powerful statistical analysis to demonstrate the true danger of particulate emissions. His success and the irrefutability of his work led the coal industry to take things to the next more cynical level: attacking individual scientists. Although Schwartz eventually won out, and the government adopted regulations on particulate matter, scientists still worry that this is not enough, as smaller unregulated “ultrafine” particles (roughly 1/1000th of a millimeter in diameter) may be even more dangerous than their larger controlled counterparts. Coal companies continue to fight pollution controls, a tactic that is costly for the public at large, as past data indicates that we gain $42 for every $1 spent on controlling pollution. Economically speaking, that’s a pretty impressive return for any investment.

In his final section, “The Heat”, Goodell takes on the most contentious and timely ramification of our addiction to coal: global warming. Of the many issues discussed in Big Coal, climate change is probably the most insidious, because it is the easiest to ignore. As Goodell explains, “The complexity of what is going on here is so great, and the interconnections so subtle and profound, that anyone who tries to come to grips with it is inevitably drawn back to the old metaphor of the butterfly flapping its wings in China and causing a hurricane in Florida.” But, global warming is real, its dangers are imminent, and the coal industry is allowing it to proceed as if there were no tomorrow.

As carbon dioxide emissions continue to accelerate, increasing by about 1.5 parts per million each year, we’re predicted to cross into the realm of catastrophic climate change around the year 2017. One-fourth of our carbon dioxide emissions come from burning coal, and we have been optimistically estimated to have 250 years worth of coal to burn (although the reality could be only one-tenth of this). Therefore, until the coal industry cleans up its act, we’ll be hard-pressed to make significant reductions in carbon emissions.

As Goodell explores the big issues, he craftily interweaves many other interesting stories and facts into the mix. The reader learns about the battle between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison over local power generation and conservation (Tesla emerges as the good guy) and the slow disillusionment of Christie Whitman, who became George W. Bush’s EPA Administrator assuming he would follow through with his campaign promise to cap carbon dioxide emissions (he didn’t). Goodell also explains how the “resource curse” applies to the poverty of West Virginia and other coal mining regions, contrasting the situation there with that in Norway, where the universal sharing of the benefits of rich natural resources has led to an incredibly prosperous society. The situation in many of the coal mining regions of the US, where the locals clearly do not benefit from the presence of coal, provides another example of how misguided red state policies keep these states poor despite their natural potential. Although Goodell at one point makes a major gaffe by calling carbon dioxide “an invisible gas made up of one molecule of carbon and two molecules of oxygen” (I’ll trust that my readers are astute enough to see the error there), this does not take away from his otherwise informative and engaging story of how our reliance on coal is poisoning our society.

In the jacket of Big Coal, Goodell’s book is compared to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. The comparison is apt, but the solution in Schlosser’s case was much easier: just stop eating fast food! To be fair, Goodell does offer a variety of solutions to the coal industry’s destructive influence, including stricter environmental regulation schemes, the use of alternative uses of coal such as the integrated gasification combined cycle, stressing the further development and use of cleaner sources of power, and the much more illusive goal of “making the invisible visible” in regards to the global warming consequences of burning coal. For the most part, though, these are political solutions, and although these are surely goals that we can all reach for in flexing our political muscle, when it comes to everyday life, the options seem much more limited. The only solution there, then, is still the most obvious one. We all need to do our part to reduce our energy usage.

Despite its minor shortcomings, Jeff Goodell’s Big Coal is both engaging and illuminating. It would be difficult or even impossible to find someone who this book would not be relevant for, and, as the environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert writes, “Big Coal should be read by anybody who owns a microwave, or an iPod, or a table lamp, which is to say everyone.” I couldn’t agree more, and as we continue daily to flip the switches that empower the continued degradation of our and the earth’s health via coal, hopefully we can shine some light on this dirty little secret as well. Big Coal is a great start in this endeavor.


  1. #1 coturnix
    September 14, 2006

    This is on my reading list for the immediate future. I noticed you put this in your “Nikola Tesla” category – what is the connection (beyond “it’s about energy”)?

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    September 14, 2006

    I decided to take that category out, in my constant struggle against my tendency to completely overcategorize every post. I had originally included Tesla, though, because the book contains a bit of background on some of the struggles between Tesla and Edison over how the powering of the US would play out. It’s just a short passage, but after writing about Tesla previously, I thought it would be particularly relevant to this blog.

  3. #3 Ted Fisher
    September 15, 2006

    A friend of mine is working in the new ‘coal to liquid fuel’ industry. It may be a vital stop-gap energy source for the short term. However, the tech to watch is RNA. Forget protein folding for the short term. The active site of ribosomes (the structure that essentially converts DNA originated information into proteins) is in the raw RNA…

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