BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Big Coal

As if we didn't have enough to worry about, here is a book on a major energy source about which Jeff Goodell speaks with authority. In Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], he says right off, "We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks." He has done much research on his subject at first hand.

The many disadvantages of using coal as a major fuel is his theme. It's true that in the United States we no longer burn it for heating our houses or running locomotives. But coal is still the basis of the electric power industry providing over half our power. As I understand it, coal is burned under containers of water, and the resulting steam then starts turbines and generators that produce electricity.

One big disadvantage to coal use is still the dangers of mining. Since the year 1900 more than 100,000 miners in the US have died in mining accidents. Countless others have developed black lung disease from breathing in coal dust. And in China, the author says, more than 6,000 die every single year from mine disasters. The 1907 Monongah, W.V., mine explosion killed 361 workers. The Sago mine disaster of early 2006, again in West Virginia, came after more than 200 safety violations were found at the mine the year before, which evidently were not corrected.

Besides problems in the mines, Big Coal through the years has been tied to corruption, politics and war. The fall of Enron actually gave it a boost. Pros and cons of coal production have long divided politicians. Al Gore is certainly not a friend of Big Coal because of its contribution to global warming, and the coal industry in 2000 gave its financial support to Bush instead.

So Big Coal burns on. Goodell reports that in 2005 more than 120 new plants were under construction or being planned. He thinks that even the 9/11 attack was a boon for the industry because it made many people think seriously about our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Hurricane Katrina showed us that we are unprepared for "climate chaos." We are just as unprepared to handle the crisis of global warming and the end of cheap oil. Goodell firmly believes our abundant coal supply is giving us a false sense of security.

How can we change this situation? He holds that the barriers to positive change are political, not technological. In brief, it is a moral problem, and we don't need to destroy the world, just reinvent it. He says we have the technology to start building an almost zero-emissions coal plant right now. Then why aren't we doing it? We like to think that "electric power flows down to us from a giant golden bucket in the sky." Although the coal companies say major changes might collapse the economy, Goodell thinks there is a small possibility it would turn out to their economic advantage. There are hints of change blowing in the wind. I grew up in southwestern Oklahoma and I have always loved watching windmills turning. Out on Interstate 40 south of Weatherford right now is a striking sight -- huge turbines blowing in the strong breeze. Maybe they are a good portent for the future.

The author finishes this study by quoting what he saw on a bumper sticker -- "Please Lord, give me one more boom and I promise not to screw it up." That should be our prayer!

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater, OK 74074, or email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2006

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