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Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future Paperback – April 3, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. After a generation out of the spotlight, coal has reasserted its centrality: the United States "burn[s] more than a billion tons" per year, and since 9/11 and the Iraq war, independence from foreign oil has become positively patriotic. Rolling Stone contributing editor Goodell's last book, the bestselling Our Story, was about a mine accident, which clearly made a deep impression on him. Our reliance on coal—the unspoken foundation of our "information" economy—has, Goodell says, led to an "empire of denial" that blocks us from the investments necessary to find alternative energy sources that could eventually save us from fossil fuel. Goodell's description of the mining-related deaths, the widespread health consequences of burning coal and the impact on our planet's increasingly fragile ecosystem make for compelling reading, but such commonplace facts are not what lift this book out of the ordinary. That distinction belongs to Goodell's fieldwork, which takes him to Atlanta, West Virginia, Wyoming, China and beyond—though he also has a fine grasp of the less tangible niceties of the industry. Goodell understands how mines, corporate boardrooms, commodity markets and legislative chambers interrelate to induce a national inertia. Goodell has a talent for pithy argument—and the book fairly crackles with informed conviction. (June 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Viewing the political and economic heft of the American coal industry, journalist Goodell presents an admiring view of the workers who mine, transport, and burn coal and an adversarial posture toward the CEOs, lobbyists, and politicians who monitor industry interests. In the background of the author's narratives, which are pegged to his visits to coalfields, coal-hauling trains, and power plants, lurks environmental pollution. Goodell injects relevant statistics (e.g., on average, an American uses 20 pounds of coal in a lifetime) that effectively personalize the reader's connection to an industry most ignore until a power outage. He astutely recognizes and heavily criticizes how mining companies and utilities capitalize on this disconnection in their public relations. Disputing their assertions that standards of living will suffer from the host of regulations and treaties he favors, Goodell particularizes his objections in detail useful to those who closely follow environmental issues. The circulation numbers of a comparable critique of the fossil fuels complex, Boiling Point, by Ross Gelbspan (2004), may predict Goodell's appeal to library patrons. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Is there such a thing as clean coal or should we relegate coal to the dustbin of history? The "dirty secret" seems to be "no," or maybe the dirty secret is that the figures on coal abundance in America are misleading in that only 20-30% of what is within our borders is economically viable to mine. The "War on Coal" and environmental regulations are not the main reason for the industry's decline, they simply speed up what is already projected. Goodell writes that companies like Georgia Power spend a lot of money on material and seminars casting doubt on climate change in small, rural, red state areas to help portray any coal-bashing as mythological. I recently read Sen. Rand Paul's book where he makes the statement "The coal industry is not destroying the natural beauty of Kentucky." Even miners who rely on the mines for a living wouldn't go that far.
Big Coal's weakness is that it focuses solely on America and ignores the wider history of coal and its relationship to other energy markets. Some of the reviews on Amazon by environmentalists suggest that the author's optimism on geological CO2 storage and Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle is misplaced or that he caved somehow to special interests. It is not a really hard-hitting expose, most of what is discussed is already common knowledge. There is criticism of Bush-Cheney energy policy and a retelling of the disappointment of Christine Todd Whitman. (Also claims the war in Iraq was good for the little energy companies in the US because of a greater desire for energy independence.) While the future may be in clean technologies, the author ignores any waste or untoward activity regarding taxpayer subsidies to green energy.
Goodell examines various ideas like carbon sequestration and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plants. Goodell writes that IGCC plants cost only 20% more than a normal plant, so he chafes at industry complaints and lobbying over cost concerns and points to one in Tennessee which turned a profit without federal subsidy. However, others argue that the cost estimates are higher than what Goodell thought reliable, so the debate continues. There is not a great deal of depth is given to solar or other advancements; reading a magazine article could get you about as much.
For me, the most interesting chapter in the book focused on the role the monopolist railroad BNSF has in helping determine the price of coal. Transportation costs via BNSF are a major factor keeping Wyoming coal from having an even larger advantage over Appalachian coal. The railroad has a reputation for retaliating if coal companies sue or complain. The author also records the difficult life of railroad engineers and safety issues-- how many work long shifts and get little sleep; think of the horror stories you've heard of airlines and then increase it by a factor. Instead of carrying passengers, they carry toxic freight that can poison a community if it derails in the right spot.
The average American burns 20 pounds of coal a day. I'm writing just after 2015, when Americans finally got more electricity from natural gas than coal in the last several months (according to the US Energy Information Agency). Appalachian coal is less marketable as the glut of oil and natural gas have put downward pressure on prices. Coal in Montana, while dirtier and harder to remove mercury from, is much cheaper (and easier in terms of productivity) to mine than the bituminous Appalachian variety. The boom-bust cycle of coal mining here in Kentucky is currently in a bust, and unemployment rates in these regions are well above the national average; many are migrating West to find jobs in automobile plants in Kentucky which are, ironically, experiencing a boom due to low gasoline prices.
If there is a villain in the book, it's Massey Energy Chairman Don Blankenship. Even before the 2010 Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, Blankenship's firm had a reputation for cutting corners and being the "biggest bully in the sandbox" when it came to lobbying and litigation. Blankenship lived in the region where Massey operated and just miles from where groundwater became polluted by his company's coal slurry. Massey apparently paid to build his own water line to a neighboring town than rely on the local well water; he declined to help his neighbors do likewise.
There are not actually very many secrets in this book. A decent primer on the state of the American coal industry circa 2007. 3 stars.
On the other hand, there is still a lot to enjoy (or maybe appreciate is a better word) about this book, as it provides a good overview of the United States coal industry. The author does a particularly good job of explaining the interplay between rail transportation and the coal industry, and does a good job bringing together the many, many appalling social harms that the coal industry - or more accurately the coal mining and coal power industries - are responsible for, from terrible treatment of labor forces, to mountaintop removal practices in Appalachia, to misleading media and political campaigns about "clean" coal, to a long history efforts to evade and undermine air quality laws. Late in the book it also provides a very interesting look into the Chinese coal industry, something that is not well represented in popular literature. At the end of the analysis, the author does not call coal industry executives a bunch of criminals, but he certainly provides plenty of support for anyone else who would like to.
There will be a substantial number of people who will very strongly wish that the facts as presented in this book were not true. I think it is incumbent upon them to state exactly what this book got wrong. If they cannot, then it is more likely a case of Upton Sinclair's famous point: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The sad thing is that, as is so often and eloquently presented in this book, the coal industry is most devastating to those who depend on it for employment.
Ultimately, this is a book to read if you are open to the idea that the coal industry should be dead, dead, dead - or if you want to begin to understand why so many people think it ought to be.
A big oversight is the non-mention of the American and Canadian Oil Shale/Sands deposits, which will be a huge factor in how Coal will be valued and mined in the future... Goodell doesn't even broach the subject - which convinces me that he hasn't the slightest idea what he is talking about, when it comes to understanding the future of the Energy Industry.
Goodell quickly moves past trying to present the facts, and things really start to go downhill fast, as we are presented with a sequence of sad-sack stories of West Virginia losers and enviromentalists who don't know enough to get the heck out, but do know enough to complain and whine, and blame all the world's problems on President Bush.
The book ends with a huge section devoted to Global Warming doomsaying predications - in the typical fashion that politicizes the weather.
One part of the book that I did find interesting is how many resource-rich lands are exploited by the rich, who do very little investing in the future of these areas... yet Wyoming is a success story, because the people understand the value of getting an education, and investing in long-term projects that will benefit the area.