25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2007
Right from the start, when author Jeff Goodell discusses daily life around a coal extraction site in Wyoming, "Big Coal" is a captivating look at a subject that is seemingly as ordinary...as a lump of coal. Goodell knows his subject. He has witnessed coal mining operations in West Virginia, Wyoming and China. He has interviewed government officials, regulators, environmentalists, mine operators and the miners themselves. He has witnessed the devastation of strip mining and spoken to people whose land is literally washing away from them. He has spoken to those whose livelihoods are dependent on coal, and who even get a thrill from pitting their lives against Mother Nature. He has detonated explosives that exposed coal seams, accompanied inspectors worriedly checking excavation sites for potentially-fatal weak spots and ridden the rails with those who transport coal across the country.
"Big Coal" details the thrills and dangers of mining, an occupation that has cost 100,000 lives since 1900. It discusses the geological forces that laid down the coal beds, the differences between grades of coal like bituminous and anthracite and the historical personalities that bequeathed us our power system. He tackles tough issues -- like the efforts to control their entry of coal by-products mercury and sulfur into the environment. He is not afraid to tell it like it is. To the current administration's contention that there are 250 years of coal in the ground (250 million years in the words of George W. Bush), Goodell counters with studies that show that fewer than 20 years' worth of that coal that is *economically* extractable. Goodell analyzes the devastating impact of burning carbon-rich coal on the global environment. CO2 being a greenhouse gas with enormous impact on climactic warming trends. Goodell lays out a compelling case for the folly of building more and more plants that belch more of the stuff into the atmosphere. Goodell details the way Big Coal ignores and fights this long range problem for short-term profit. Most depressingly, he relates the political enablers that allow Big Coal to persuade Americans that polluting their streams and wrecking their children's environment is good for them. He discusses the way foreign juggernauts like China and India are beginning to repeat America's coal-centered mistakes in their quest to become world economic leaders, and the decreasing leverage that a coal-hungry America has to counter this threat.
The last third of the book was the hardest to read. It described the political expediency and pure greed that induces the coal lobby and US politicians to ignore, minimize and paper over the true costs of burning coal. Easy, low-cost solutions that can reduce coal's effect on the environment are put off as long as possible so coal execs can get a few more years of profits from the black rock. The public is misled to keep shareholders happy and politicians in office. This section caused me to put the book down out of frustration with our greed-drive political system.
But do not despair. "Big Coal" lays out the entire complex picture of coal and the industry required to harvest and exploit it. The book is not an attempt to destroy the coal industry or to destroy America's technological leadership. It is a clear-eyed and straightforward assessment of a difficult and complex reality. Reading the book will help you understand the many facets of the way that coal keeps the global economy running and that will (without adequate protections) land us in a world of hurt. Goodell's even-handed and comprehensive appraisal of the issues that fuel the coal controversy may make him seem biased in the eyes of some. And he is biased, if by this one means that he values clean air and land, a future free of climate change and live miners living to healthy old age with their families. But he is always fully truthful.
"Big Coal" will help you understand the issues -- technological, political, moral and economical-- to be tied to getting our power from coal. The Black Rock employs tens of thousands, allows millions to live in luxury and enables our nation's technological success. Yet it poisons our children, warms our planet and takes or shortens the lives of hundreds of thousands. I appreciated "Big Coal" for its ability to lay out the facts without the smog of industry and political obfuscation that usually accompanies their telling. An excellent, quite readable and educational book.
33 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Goodell's thoughtful work serves as an important reminder to Americans of the dangers that come with cheap electricity. Yet the author takes his analysis one step further, demonstrating how coal's cheap price masks its many hidden costs, lung disease, environmental destruction, and global warming. Coal exists in a highly flawed marketplace, where none of these costs are included in the price paid by the consumer, a market failure that the coal industry gladly supports in order to avoid any reasonable regulator regime. Moreover, coal serves as a great case study of how the market place does not respond unless pushed to tertiary effects as the coal industry continues to build new plants that lack the gasification technology that eliminates most of the pollutants at a cost increase of 20-25%.
The author does fudge a bit when describing the economic bonanza that might come from government imposed demands for clean technology. That is not to say that I believe he is wrong, green industry is indeed booming and China and India will soon need to adopt it or suffer grave social dislocation and health costs resulting from pollution. However, Goodell could have done a better job offering data on this area.
In any event, energy remains perhaps the key issue of the 21st century. This author's aditton to the debate provides welcomed and easily digestible insights.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
There are a number of problems connected with the burning of coal to create electricity. Coal pollutes the atmosphere. Mining coal plays havoc with the environment, especially when the methods used include blowing off the top of mountains and letting the debris wash down the gullies into the rivers and streams. Mining coal can be a dangerous, dirty job. And--as is the case with other fossil fuels--we will, soon or late, run out of coal. And, by the way, this will be sooner than coal executives would have us believe. (See "Coal, reserves" in the excellent index.)
But are these problems unsolvable and/or the price we have to pay to keep the economic engine humming?
Phrased in another way, "The issue is not really whether we have enough coal to provide enough electricity to keep our air conditioners cranked up. We surely do. The issue is, how big a part of America are we willing to sacrifice for this privilege?" (p. 19)
Journalist Jeff Goodell spent three years looking deeply into these questions. He talked to the miners and the coal executives. He rode the trains that haul coal and he went to China where coal is used for everything from making the fire to turn the turbines to cooking the evening meal. He saw a lot of pollution in China and he saw a lot of devastation in West Virginia. He talked to people with black lung and to people who have had part of their property washed down stream because the land above them had been stripped by coal mining. He talked to think tank conservatives who claim that coal is the answer to our dependence on foreign oil; and he talked to environmentalists who believe that the burning of coal is going to trigger an environmental disaster because of all the carbon dioxide being spewed into the atmosphere (not to mention the mercury, lead, chromium, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, soot and "particulates"). He looked at the politics and the economics of coal. He looked at human costs and finally he looked at the future of coal.
What he found is deeply troubling. As the oil patch runs dry we are going to build more coal plants, we are going to use coal to make diesel fuel for our vehicles and we are going to pollute the atmospheric "commons." We and the Chinese and the Russians and others. And it looks like the planet is going to get a lot hotter before we wake up and realize the we can no longer burn fossil fuels for our energy needs. The environmental costs of burning coal simply will not be worth the energy we get.
This is the bottom line that is so very hard for us to appreciate. As Goodell makes clear, the real costs of burning coal--pollution of the environment, health costs, global warming--are largely invisible. The coal companies don't want to pay these costs. They use their political clout to make sure that those costs are paid for by others. And our government is not going to stop burning coal since to do so would give an economic advantage to other nations that continue to burn coal. Meanwhile the amount of pollutants in the atmosphere continues to grow, and our air becomes like the land in the "tragedy of the commons"--used, abused, and eventually despoiled because nobody can be held responsible.
Coal executives like to say that coal brings prosperity. Look at Wyoming. Look at China. But Goodell also has us look at West Virginia. "Over the past 150 years or so, more than 13 billion tons of coal have been carted out the Mountain State. What do West Virginians have to show for it? The lowest median household income in the nation, a literacy rate in the southern coalfields that's about the same as Kabul's, and a generation of young people who are abandoning their home state to seek their fortunes elsewhere." (pp. xx-xxi)
The situation is the same or worse in the coal mining areas of China. Already China is looking to reduce its dependance on coal. They are "building the largest offshore wind farm in the world." They are replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas, and they've "banned the use of coal for heating and cooking in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai." (p. 230) But of course they are also building more coal burning power plants to generate electricity--as we are.
The race now is on between how many dirty coal burning plants Big Coal can get built before they are stopped by the inevitable legislation to come that will require coal plants not only to scrub their stacks for particulates, but to capture and sequester carbon dioxide.
Goodell looks at the "integrated gasification combined cycle" (IGCC) power plants that are proposed and being built. These plants cook off the impurities in coal and convert the coal to a synthetic gas. The process makes it easier and cheaper to capture CO2 from the coal. He writes, "The difference between an IGCC power plant and a conventional coal plant is sometimes said to be akin to the difference between a Toyota Prius and a Chevrolet Suburban." (p. 210) IGCCs are clearly the coal power plants of the future, but they are expensive to build and so Big Coal prefers to build conventional plants.
What I came away feeling after reading this engagingly written, meticulously researched, and well-documented journalistic tour de force is the sense that things are going to get worse before they get better, and that our children and grandchildren are going to suffer from the ill-effects of burning coal to a degree that will make them wonder what our generations were doing while the atmosphere and the earth burned. And it is they who will pay the economic costs that our politicians and corporate executives are avoiding today.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2007
This book starts with "The Dig" describing in detail the actual mining of coal and what this does to the environment, homeowners around digs, how miners are treated and the transportation of coal (exploitation of the railroads/only thing good about this is the railroads kick the coal business in the butt when Big Coal is used to doing the kicking (to consumers/environmentalists/miners and the few politicians who aren't in their pockets and actually care about enforcing pollution standards). The bad thing is higher prices for consumers held hostage by 2 bandits - the railroads and coal industry.
Next is "The Burn" about the politics of coal and the constant finagling of putting off pollution control standards and the corruptness of the EPA (government employees appointed to the EPA from the coal industry, wreck havoc, and return to the coal industry) and health of people especially young (ex. asthma/mercury). It addresses how the industry deals with mercury, heavy metals, air pollution, water pollution and destruction of the land (or not).
Last is The Heat" chapter which addresses global warming and what the electric (utility) companies are doing to "meet or not meet this formidable challenge".
Why is ANY of this happening when there is a simple fix for most of it?
1) Ban anyone from working in the EPA who worked in the coal/energy industry (including as a lobbyist) in the last 10 years from being appointed/hired to the EPA. Ban anyone from working in the EPA if any of their immediate family works for Big Coal.
2) Ban anyone currently working for the EPA from working in the coal industry (including as a lobbyist) for 10 years AFTER they leave the EPA and that includes their immediate family members. If whoever is hired to work in the EPA (biologist/teacher/MBA, physician, lawyer, plumber, nurse, etc) needs to understand a particularly complicated piece, he can ASK the Big Coal industry and others outside Big Coal for that specific answer.
3) QUIT relying on the present big coal/energy companies (throw in auto industry/gasoline here also) to come up with a solution to finding alternate energy sources. The blacksmith did NOT invent the automobile, travel agents did NOT invent [...] and the U.S. postal office did not invent e-mail.
4) The government should dig through their patent computer (use city (not government) librarians to do this and ensure the research/dig salary monies go directly into the city library fund and not the city coffers. The patent website is on-line so the librarian doesn't even have to travel. ANY patent dealing with energy that hasn't been ACTIVELY (define it so there is no wiggle room) worked on in 2 years, let this patent become public property and announce it on the internet. This will keep the energy companies who like the status quo from squelching new discoveries by just buying the patent. Change the U.S. patent law to make this so but also address the patent laws of other countries if they have any and have them change theirs also so the U.S. is not at a disadvantage. The whole world needs to solve this mess.
This book was a fantastic read because of its in-depth coverage of the entire problem. Although it addresses mostly the United States coal industry, China and India aren't forgotten either although the author seems to think the U.S. should pay a higher price upfront by having to implement stricter pollution standards for us now and allow China and India more time to foul the air/water before they would fall under the same pollution guidelines.
Read this book. You will learn much but won't sleep much. Sleep will evade you due to anger at the greed of the Big Coal industry, corruptness of politicians in bed with Big Coal, EPA nepotism, EPA turning its back on U.S. citizens whose lands and health are being destroyed by Big Coal (similar to asbestos) and even a little at yourself because you want to turn on your AC but at a cheap price. Guilt will eat at you for forgetting to turn off your TV when you went to bed or for even having 2 or 3 TVs and because want to forget about all this when you close this book but in the back of your mind you know it isn't going away and it will get worse for you but especially for your children. Anger because we as citizens of the United States of America are complacent in allowing our government officials who are supposed to work for us (should be finding new ways to turn on our AC and make/enforce pollution standards) to instead be controlled by these Big Coal businesses whose only goal is to work for their stockholders. Anger because at local/state level all we can do is vote them out of office and guilt because we don't vote or care to research who we are voting for. You won't sleep because of worry over the health of our children from Big Coal pollutants which can be stopped/reduced but aren't (even if you don't believe in Global Warming and all those associated hazards, the air/land/water pollution and land stripping are still there) and finally worry over the condition of the U.S. and the world environment we will leaving our children and grandchildren once the mountains are stripped off, the land blown/dug up and the air/land/water fouled because the United States of America with all it's strength is too weak to put it foot down on Big Coal (throw in gasoline here as well) and throw its weight and subsidies at the small inventors not working for the coal/energy industry in any way (think Edison/Wright Brothers) and don't give the coal industry any of these subsidies because they will not work to make themselves obsolete but just try to reinvent the same wheel. I have faith in the individual person to find a solution not big business and not big government. When you read this book you will be filled with despair but also hope because it can be corrected if we want it to be. Sleeplessness will come because of fear of going the wrong way or not acting fast enough once the right way is found and it will be too late. The worst part is not knowing when too late is. Only God knows that.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2007
Goodell is an excellent writer, and the reporting contained in Big Coal could not be more timely. He has written the right book at the right time. The world of the coal industry is a bit like coal itself: it is buried--but not in the ground. Rather, it is covered by a thick layer of propaganda and public ignorance. Goodell unearths the unpleasant truths about coal mining, coal power, and the shady political game that both of these industries play. This is not so much a polemic, but simply a great piece of journalism. There are scores of fascinating personalities and memorable scenes. The book also achieves a remarkable overall synthesis. I could hardly put it down, and I think that if anyone was going to reveal the coal industry for what it is, Jeff Goodell was the one for the job.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2007
The dirty coal, anybody with any real environmental or history knowledge knows.
Beyond the secret meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney, though, Jeff Goodell details, at both the state and federal level, how Behemoth Coal works.
And, beyond just its opposition to the Kyoto Treaty or carbon caps, he also details how, in its lack of adaptability, the behemoth is also Dinosaur Coal, with both of these issues of huge importance for global warming and energy conservation.
At the same time, both in the U.S. and abroad, we see the human costs of mining coal, inhaling coal's pollution and more.
And, here in the U.S., we see big coal's biggest bedfellow besides electric utilities: the railroad companies BNSF and UP, whose stranglehold on Western coal needs regulation itself.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2007
I think it's safe to say that most Americans don't think about coal very much. We know it's out there because of the occasional riveting and sensational news stories of hideous mine disasters, but the coal industry has inured itself from media and government scrutiny so well as to be almost invisible: just what they want to be. Coal lobbyists, in the degenerate age of Bush, are in charge of regulatory agencies, which is utter madness. Jeff Goodell, in the best tradition of muckraking journalism, stirs up the horrors this business has caused. West Virginia, he points out, has undergone systematic destruction of its mountain ranges and environment on a grand scale of late, as new methods of blowing up mountains have unleashed access to hard-to-get coal seams that would have otherwise been abandoned. Wyoming is one empty landscape of strip mines and those strip mine companies are still going strong, tearing up America in order to "feed the beast," meaning America's beastial need for energy.
Heartbreaking stories of lives and landscapes ruined are hard to read, as are the heartless policies of greedy mine barons who suck the earth and the blood of their workers dry in their endless efforts to become billionaires.
This book is eye opening. One is left wondering exactly what one can do about such blatant destruction of our air and our earth short of fomenting a revolution. I went around the house turning off lights and saving electricity, but that's like trying to slay a dragon with a pea shooter. We can only hope that there's a regime change in Washington and regulations are once again enforced with vigor. We can also all work toward a new and one hopes enlightened government seriously taking on entrenched and anti-people business interests while it pursues new avenues of clean, green energy.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2007
I am a technical writer new to the Power Industry, after 30 years in Aviation. A new industry is alot like being 21 again, fresh out of school with a lot to learn. So, I bought some books on the Industry. Big Coal was my first read because I write operating procedures for flue gas desulfurization scrubbers being built to neutralize the flue gas, produced by coal fired power plants, that make acid rain. This book is well researched, well written and very informative. The first 180 pages deals with historical information of the coal industry. The last 80 pages is more about current events and is an informative read. This is a Good Book!
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2006
When the politicians say anything except how bad their opponet is they say what they think that we want to hear. The truth, even if they knew it, is painful. And no politician who wants to get elected talks about pain. After all, his opponet will be telling everyone just how good it is and that if we only elect them all will be wonderful.
The truth is that we are running out of energy, specifically cheap, easy to get energy. This book talks about one of the answers that has been talked about over and over, increasing use of coal. The author, quite correctly points out some of the problems with considering coal to be the solution:
Coal is a horrible polluter. The biggest pollution from it is carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas. Increasing consumption will make global warming worse. In spite of what the Government is saying, global warming is real. One effect of global warming is bad storms - ask the people in New Orleans.
The easy to get coal has already been mined. What's left is of lower quality, in smaller deposits, harder to mine, more expensive to get.
What the book doesn't have is a solution. Here are the problems in coal. There are also big problems in all of the other areas talked about:
Biofuels - By the time you consider fertilizer (made mostly from natural gas), farming (lots of big diesel powered machinery), converting to fuel there is a real question as to whether you gain any net energy.
Hybrid cars - They will either use gasoline, diesel fuel, or will be plugged into the electric grid at night. That means more coal burned.
Solar power - very expensive, it will get better, but unlikely to provide a big answer.
Nuclear power - probably the only real answer but not very popular with the public.
Most people don't vote, don't read the paper, don't really care except that gasoline has gotten more expensive. The public doesn't want to know, they just want the light to come on when they flip the switch without having any understanding at all as to why it does.
The book doesn't offer a solution because there isn't a solution except to change our whole lifestyle, and we don't want to do that.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2008
Is the earth about ready to ecologically bite the big one via coal-caused global warming, or is this whole thing blown out of proportion? I don't know; but I think we should play it safe and listen to Jeff Goodell. I might not agree with his liberal politics, but I do respect the study he has done on `Big Coal', which is full of fascinating and scary stats and observations. According to Goodell, each American indirectly causes 20 tons of CO2 to spew out into the air each year! Also, the U.S. is known as the `Saudi Arabia of Coal', containing fully a quarter of the earth's coal supply, and consuming over a billion tons a year! Some coal trains are a mile-long! The last nuclear plant went on-line over 30 years ago because of the problem of what to do with nuclear waste.
He says the earth's ecology is at the tipping point of some serious global warming because of `Big Coal'. He says that we've already raised the average temperature one degree farenheit and are well on the way to a 3.5 degrees increase which will start a catastrophic series of events in nature that we don't even want to think about. He says that it would overall, society-wide, be cheaper to clean-up the coal emissions rather than pay for the health problems the dirty air causes.
The strange thing is that the coal issue is not even talked about very much, probably because most of us are so far removed from coal excavation or plants. Goodell said he had not even seen a piece of coal until he was 41 (presumably while writing this book.). By the way, I used to see coal as a kid because we had a coal furnace, but haven't seen any since. You could see lumps in the street also.
All of this reminds me a little of Y2K. Nobody got excited about it until it was almost too late. Then there was a all-out (and successful) effort to avert massive computer problems.
Now I think it's time to do something about the coal situation before it is too late. Is Goodell an alarmist or a realist? I hope he's only the former, but fear he is also the latter.