Goodell divides his book into three sections, each corresponding to a stage in the "lifecycle" of coal production and consumption: the first deals with mining, the second with burning the black rocks in power plants, and the third with the effects of emissions. Goodell's choice to look at the full picture, from mine to power plant to disposing of wastes, as well as the exhaustive research he puts into each section, makes this book a bit overwhelming -- in one sense, it mirrors recent books like James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency. Goodell's take on the future is certainly much less dramatic than Kunstler's, but he makes it clear that we're on the threshold of big changes in how we produce energy in this country. The coal industry's mantra has been "We'll figure out the problems later when we've made technological advances to deal with them," but Goodell makes clear that 1) some of the most promising technological advances are ready for commercial use, but the utility companies aren't willing to spend the necessary money on them, and 2) we're simply no longer in a position to put off facing the music on climate change and other environmental problems.
While looking at the big picture, Goodell never forgets that it's individuals who pay some of the most horrific prices for our dependence on the cheap electricity provided by coal. We read stories about two of the miners rescued from the Quecreek, Pennsylvania mine disaster in 2002, a woman who's family homestead has been devastated by the new floods produced by mountain top removal in the Appalachians, and a man in China's poorest province who's created his own methane digester to produce usable gas from his farm animals' poop. The facts and statistics in this book are fascinating, but it's the stories of individuals dealing with the past and present of Big Coal that really keep a reader turning pages.
This is an important book, especially as coal is experiencing a renaissance in the US. Goodell's no pie-in-the-sky idealist: he recognizes we will be burning coal for the foreseeable future. At the same time, he makes it amply clear that if we choose to keep burning it as we always have, the costs we'll face shortly down the road will dwarf the economic problems that US politicians and their industrial sugar-daddies love to tout as a reason why we can't regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Publisher Houghton-Mifflin released the book yesterday, June 8, and it should be a quick seller. ::Big Coal - The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future