Book Review: Big Coal - The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

While many writers may be capable of gathering mountains of facts on the role the coal industry plays in contemporary American life, and stringing them together into a coherent narrative, fewer likely have the ability to turn those facts into an engaging book that a reader literally can not put down. Jeff Goodell, a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and the New York Times Magazine, has done just that in his new book Big Coal: The Dirty Secrets Behind America's Energy Future. Goodell proves that he's a meticulous researcher in this book, but the incredible stories he tells as he examines the role of coal in American growth over the past century and Chinese growth in the coming one make Big Coal a genuine page-turner -- no small feat in a non-fiction examination of an industry that many Americans probably consider a part of a bygone era. Goodell shares the experiences of miners, utility executives and global warming activists, and aptly demonstrates that coal still affects American lives in the most mundane, and the most dramatic, fashions.I honed in on the phrase "the empire of denial" in Goodell's epilogue, and that's essentially how "Big Coal" is characterized through the book: in denial of not only the human and environmental costs of their product, but also about the inevitable waning of this energy source even as it's seeing a renewal of interest in the US. A few executives tied in with coal production, primarily in the big utility companies, recognize that regulation of CO2 is coming, and think it's in their best interest to get ahead of the curve by, at the very least, investing in new power plants that incorporate coal gasification and carbon sequestration technologies. By and large, though, the big utilities are building old-school dirty coal-burning plants (such as one going up just south of Nashville, Illinois) as quickly as possible to make a quick buck before regulation becomes a fact of life and requires the coal industry to internalize the costs of the big polluting plants. Yes, they're incorporating the latest scrubbers and such into these new power stations, but as Goodell notes, even these new "clean" plants will still emit tons of CO2, mercury, and combustion wastes such as fly ash, continuing Big Coal's legacy as one of the biggest contributors to global warming and public health problems.

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