The Real Black Gold

The ever growing buzz over alternative energy sources received a major boost last January, when President Bush confessed to America's oil addiction in his State of the Union Address. But since then, amidst all the speculation about a cleaner, greener tomorrow, one thing has been notably absent: an honest assessment of where we are now, and where current trends show us going in the coming years. In his forthcoming book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, author Jeff Goodell paints a key piece of this picture. As he illustrates, the coal industry is booming, a reality with implications for the global climate, human health, and the consolidation of the energy sector. Recently, TAP spoke by phone with Goodell about the future of coal and its role in American life.

How does this coal boom differ, in your view, from the previous resource booms you have studied?

There is an urgency in the debate about energy today that we haven't seen before. There's a lot of talk about peak oil, and you can argue about when exactly that peak will come, but in recent years, I think its really begun to hit people that fossil fuels are finite. So there's a real push to find new sources of power, and to imagine how we will carry on after we run out of cheap oil and gas. The other thing is the war in Iraq. American soldiers are dying right now because of our addiction to oil. Not surprisingly, this is driving a renewed interest in energy independence. Coal, of course, is a huge domestic asset; the United States has about 25 percent of the world's recoverable coal reserves, some 270 billion tons, within our borders.

In your book, you discuss how some coal mining towns become "dependent on the very things that might kill them," since the coal industry is the only economic game in town. When the coal industry threatens that there could be job losses with more regulation, how do you argue with that?

It's a very difficult situation. The coal industry has long used a kind of economic blackmail to get their way -- "loosen regulations or we'll shut down the mines and move out." West Virginia and Kentucky are the most vivid examples of how this works. These two states have been decimated by the boom and bust cycle of the coal industry, which over the years has been very good at keeping other industries out of the coalfields. Being the sole job creator in an area, they are able to say to residents, “Do you want to feed your family? Do you want to put food on the table? Well, then you've got to keep us around.” The problem is, the coal industry has not made these regions economically prosperous. It has often made them sick, fearful, and dependent. The coalfields are at the bottom of national rankings in a whole range of categories, from education to unemployment to clean water. There are economically prosperous regions in West Virginia and Kentucky, for sure -- West Virginia has a booming biotech industry -- but they are in areas where coal mining is not.

You spent three years writing this book, and as you note, during that time the American Lung Association estimates that 72,000 people died prematurely from the effects of coal-fired power plant pollution. If this is the case, then where's the public outrage?

It's true that there is very little outrage -- certainly not on a level proportionate to the problem – and there are a number of reasons for that. One is that, in many regions of the country, the air has gotten cleaner, and that's a good thing. But fact is, air pollution is not like a car crash. There isn't often blood on the highway. Except in regions where air pollution is quite severe, the negative health impacts of coal plant emissions manifest themselves gradually, over a period of years. So it requires complex, long-term epidemiological studies to make the health connections. But those connections have been made, the science is solid and peer-reviewed, and the premature deaths from air pollution are real.

The other thing is that, as I mention near the outset of the book, there's an immense and, at times, willful ignorance in America about what goes on behind the light switch. Nowadays, people can tell you exactly what they paid for their last gallon of gas, but they're clueless when it comes to electricity. Most people don't know what a kilowatt is, let alone what it costs. So the connection between coal and public health doesn't always come easily.

Coal industry executives and some politicians like to say that we have more than 250 years worth of coal left in the ground in America. At current coal prices, does the research that geologists have done bear this out?

Yes, theoretically, it's true that we do have 250 years of coal left, and the coal boosters just love to tout this figure. But you'll notice that no one making that claim talks about exactly where that coal is, or what it take to get it out of the ground. In places like mid-Appalachia, production is already starting to decline, while in other areas -- Montana for example -- the coal may be abundant, but much of it is too dirty to burn, or too far from any railroads, or it is buried in inconvenient places, like under schools or national parks. So yes, we have the coal, but what will be the human, economic and environmental costs of getting it out of the ground?

As coal prices go up, marginal coal becomes more profitable to mine, but it doesn't change the essential fact that we've been burning coal in America for more than 150 years now, and all the easy-to-get stuff is gone. What's left is increasingly difficult, destructive, and dangerous to extract.

Can you talk about the current coal boom in the context of the carbon dioxide levels that many scientists believe are allowable if we want to prevent major climate disruptions?

Close to 40 percent of America's CO2 emissions come from coal. Since 1990, CO2 emissions from coal plants have risen more than 25 percent. To avoid dangerous climate change, many scientists suggest we need to cut emissions by more than 50 percent by 2050. So, clearly, if we continue to burn coal at the rate we do today, getting a handle on global warming will be nearly impossible. The picture is very bleak, actually. According to projections by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the equivalent of 1400 1,000-megawatt power plants will be built in the world by 2030. In America, as of 2005, there were 120 coal-fired power plants proposed in about 30 states. And these are mostly conventional plants with extremely high CO2 emissions. So addressing the threat of global warming will require the large-scale adoption of cleaner technology. That's beginning to happen, but nowhere near fast enough.

Speaking of cleaner technology, some politicians, President Bush included, have been singing the praises of coal gasification recently. What is this process, how widespread is it, and what can the government do to speed its adoption?

Coal gasification (also known as integrated gasification combined cycle, or IGCC) uses heat and pressure to transform coal into a synthetic gas, which can then be used for a variety of purposes, including generating electricity. There are a number of advantages to IGCC plants over conventional combustion coal plants -- they are more efficient, they use 40 percent less water, they emit significantly less air pollution. But the biggest advantage is that it's far easier and more economical to capture and eventually sequester CO2 from these new plants.

The fate of IGCC as a successful technology to reduce CO2 emissions really hinges on our ability to sequester large quantities of carbon dioxide underground. In order to make a real difference in the net CO2 in the atmosphere, we'd have to pump hundreds of millions of tons underground every year, and then figure out ways to keep it there. This is an enormous undertaking, and one that scientists and the industry are just beginning to explore.

There is also a cultural problem in the coal industry. This is a group of people who have been burning rocks for 150 years. To adopt IGCC would be to embrace an entirely new technology, and for many, this is an intimidating prospect.

Given that China, currently in the throes of an economic boom, relies so heavily on coal and is likely to continue to do so, what can the United States do the minimize the environmental and health-related consequences?

There's no doubt that China is a major concern. More than 70 percent of China's electricity comes from coal, and if it continues on its current path the chances of avoiding major climate disruption are slim. But who are we to scold them? Per capita, the U.S. burns three times as much coal as China. In addition, the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that make global warming such a concern are mostly the result of the industrialization of the west -- we created the problem, and so we have a moral responsibility to lead the way in addressing it. When we demand -- as many coal and electric power industry CEO's do -- that we can't do anything about our emissions unless China does something about theirs, we end up simply looking like hypocrites.

That said, the single best thing we can do to advance the uptake of new technology for power generation in China would be to push harder for its rapid deployment here. America has the creativity, the engineering know-how, the financial resources. The U.S. should be leading a revolution in green tech, attracting new investments, creating new jobs. Instead, our basic strategy is simply to burn more coal and wag our fingers at the Chinese. This is not a strategy of optimism and entrepreneurialism. It is a strategy of denial.

Big Coal was published on June 8th, 2006, by Houghton Mifflin Books.

Nelson Harvey is a recent Prospect intern.