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Big Coal: Understanding the 800-Pound Gorilla

Author Goodell sees kicking our ‘coal addiction’ as era’s biggest challenge

August 14, 2009 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Jeff Goodell says that he was shocked by the environmental and economic mayhem he discovered while writing his first magazine article about the American coal industry.
Jeff Goodell literally wrote the book on Big Coal. It’s called Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future,and is widely regarded as essential reading for Americans who want to learn more bout the effects of using coal to generate half of the nation’s electricity.

Those effects, according to Mr. Goodell, include destroyed mountaintops and landscapes, mercury emissions, acid rain, breathing problems, more than 100,000 lives lost in mining tragedies, and, of course, climate change.

The Great Lakes Bulletin News Service interviewed Mr. Goodell at a critical time in the state’s history. Permits for coal plants in Bay City and Rogers City are pending at a time when Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm is trying to lead Michigan to a new, jobs-rich, 21st-century, clean-energy economy.

We talked to Mr. Goodell about his book and where he sees America heading in regards to both energy use and the responsibility we all face in addressing climate change.

GLBNews Service: In all your research for this book, what stands out the most regarding the coal industry’s impact on our quality of life?

Jeff Goodell: I'm tempted to say the destruction of Appalachia by mountaintop removal mining, the health impacts of air pollution from coal plants—24,000 premature deaths a year, according to the American Lung Association—the presence of toxic mercury in our lakes and streams, and, most alarming of all, the fact that coal plants contribute more than one third of all man-made global warming pollution.  

But I really think the thing that stands out most, in retrospect, is the degree to which the coal industry has convinced America that modern life is dependent on burning coal—that any attempt to wean ourselves off coal will mean lost jobs and rolling blackouts.

I'd argue that precisely the opposite is true: that getting off coal and replacing it with renewable energy is the single most important thing we can do for our economy, for energy security, and for the health of the planet.

GLBNS: Why did you write this book?

Mr. Goodell: In 2001, The New York Times Magazine sent me on an assignment to West Virginia to write about the comeback of the coal industry. It was an unlikely assignment for me, because like most Americans, I had no idea that we still mined and burned coal—much less that half the electricity in the country comes from burning black rocks.

I was shocked by what I discovered in West Virginia: the ruined mountains, the air pollution, the broken towns, the political muscle of the industry. But I was also taken by the courage of the activists fighting to save their homes and the powerful feeling of brotherhood among the miners I met.

After I wrote the article for the Times, I realized there was still much to be said about the cost and consequences of our dependence on coal. The central question I wanted to explore in my book was, why, in 21st-century America, are we still burning rocks for power?

GLBNS: What do you say to the average citizen, who may not fully understand the issues of carbon emissions and climate change? And what do you say regarding global warming deniers?

Mr. Goodell: This is a very complex question, so it is difficult to give a short answer without sounding flippant.

But let me say this about global warming: At this point, given the accumulated weight of scientific evidence, denying that global warming is real, and that it is driven by man-made pollution, mostly CO2, is akin to denying the scientific evidence for evolution.

That is, you can choose not to believe that global warming is happening, but if you do that, it is an act of faith, not fact. The evidence is not only overwhelming, it is alarming, and it is getting more alarming every month. Just look at what’s happening in the Arctic: when I finished the original manuscript for my book in 2006, climate scientists believed that we could have an ice-free Arctic by the summer of 2040. Today, the ice is melting so fast that many scientists believe it could be ice-free by the summer of 2013.

As for what individuals can do to make a difference, the single biggest thing is not weathering your windows and doors and buying energy efficient appliances, although that is important. It’s educating yourself about where your energy comes from, and what the real cost and consequences of it are.

That way, when you see one of those slick ads for “clean coal,” you’ll understand that it is just an advertising slogan—or as Robert Kennedy Jr. puts it, “a dirty lie.” And, that way, you’ll be able to make informed choices about the energy plans or politicians you support. Because, in the end, the real roadblocks to clean energy are not technological. They are political.

GLBNS: Do you believe the world will be able to adequately address carbon emissions/climate change? Are we on the right path?

Mr. Goodell: We are taking baby steps in the right direction. The climate legislation that Congress is currently wrestling with, for example, is encouraging. It would put a modest cap on CO2 emissions, one that would gradually tighten over time.

But to keep CO2 levels below what scientists tell us is necessary to avoid dangerous changes, such as epic droughts and rapidly rising sea levels, will take a lot more than this single piece of legislation. It will require a massive mobilization to reinvent our energy infrastructure on the scale of what we witnessed in the U.S. during World War II.

And according to NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen, it will require shutting down every coal plant in the world or finding a way to burn it without releasing CO2, which is expensive and fraught with problems, within the next 20 years and replacing it with carbon-free energy sources. Could we do that? Absolutely. Will we? I don’t know.

GLBNS: If you had a magic wand and could immediately address the most pressing issues regarding the coal industry, its impact on the environment, and carbon, what would you do?

Mr. Goodell: There is no magic wand. Solving our energy problems, and confronting global warming, is far and away the biggest challenge of our time. It will require not just massive financial investments in new energy infrastructure, which can be great for our economy, but more importantly, great political courage.

Our addiction to coal is the 800-pound gorilla in all this. We can continue to stick our heads in the sand and burn coal the old-fashioned way, or we take the lead in building a new energy economy and a sustainable planet. But we can’t do both.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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