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By Robert Rapier on Mar 9, 2010 with 23 responses

Book Review: Big Coal

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future by Jeff Goodell

One of the triumphs of modern life is our ability to distance ourselves from the simple facts of our own existence. – Jeff Goodell

Big Coal by Jeff Goodell is a book I have had on my reading list for a long time, but I only got around to reading it during my recent trip to Europe. It has taken me a very long time to finish this review for a number of reasons, but one is that I had a hard time deciding what to write. Normally, when I read a book I will dog-ear the pages that I want to revisit either because 1). There was something significant that I did not know; or 2). I want to reference a particular point in the book review. By the time I finished reading this book, I probably had 50 pages dog-eared.

My introduction to Jeff Goodell came a couple of years ago when he was writing an article for Rolling Stone about ethanol. He contacted me and we talked a few times, I got to know him a bit, and he published a pretty scathing article during the early days of the ethanol euphoria. For more on that episode, see Rolling Stone Article, Jeff Goodell Debates the Rolling Stone Article on CNBC, or Bob Dinneen Responds to Rolling Stone.

I wish I could write like Goodell. I really enjoy his writing style. I sometimes disagree with particular points, but in Big Coal he makes a very compelling argument that we don’t come close to paying the societal costs of coal usage when we pay our electric bill.

Even though we don’t often see it, coal is a part of daily life for most of us. It produces a great deal of our electricity. But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the implications. As Goodell notes on the first page, “We love our hamburgers, but we’ve never seen the inside of a slaughterhouse.” Isn’t that the truth? I have always imagined the number of people who would become vegetarians if they ever saw the inner workings of a slaughterhouse.

When we fuel up our cars, we don’t think (much) about the ramifications of our oil dependence. When we flip a light switch, we do not associate that with the coal-driven mountaintop removals in West Virginia. In this book, Goodell thrusts those associations right in your face.

The book is divided into three parts: Extraction, conversion to power, and the resulting emissions. He covers the history of the industry, tells the stories of the people in and around the business, and while most of the book is based on U.S.-happenings, he does spend a chapter on China.

I would imagine the coal industry was none too pleased with Big Coal, because it paints a really ugly picture of the industry.  Goodell contrasts the coal industry with the individuals whose lives have been negatively impacted by coal in one way or another. He details corruption and politics that allowed the industry to delay implementation of pollution control equipment. And on a big picture level, he argues that continued usage of coal poses a serious threat to the earth’s climate.

This book will leave you shaking your head, wondering why we use coal at all if the overall picture is as troublesome as Goodell suggests. I found myself wondering as well, which was actually what led to my post on the cost of various energy sources. There at the top of the list for the cheapest source of energy was Powder River Basin coal, which is why we continue to heavily use coal despite the issues Goodell spells out.

We humans aren’t very good at willingly making sacrifices today in order to potentially improve the situation a few years down the line. We want instant gratification and coal fits the bill. (I would argue this is also why the U.S. is so deeply in debt and our personal savings rate is so low.)

I noted in my book review of Crude World that Peter Maass didn’t present a balanced picture of the oil industry; it was all bad. His book was intended to highlight the negative aspect of our oil dependency. Big Coal is the same in that respect. It is hard to argue that coal hasn’t improved the lives of a great many people around the world, and I know a number of people who would argue that these improvements outweigh the negatives. Further, it is fair to say that the coal industry has come a long way in cleaning up their emission profile over the past few decades.

But it is clear which side of that argument Goodell would come down on. To be honest, I come down on that side as well. I would like to see us limit our coal consumption and boost electricity generation from other resources. I know a great number of people who feel this way, but coal is like oil in that replacing it will likely entail economic sacrifices that individuals don’t like to make. Coal produces half of the electricity in the U.S., and I would have a hard time arguing that anything – outside of nuclear power – can scale up and take on the role that coal currently plays.

The realist in me thinks that we will eventually use up all of our coal, as will China, Australia, India, and all of the other major coal producers. This is primarily why I sit out the debates on climate change; I can’t realistically envision anything that will get the world to collectively NOT burn up all the coal. In an energy-constrained future, prices will rise and people who feel morally opposed to coal will suddenly find their moral fiber weakening as high energy prices bite into their budgets.

I don’t discount that renewable energy can eventually make a bigger impact (I hope so, because that’s what I am doing for a living), but it is starting from a very small basis compared to electricity generated from coal. While coal produces about half of the electricity in the U.S., renewables other than hydropower account for only about 3.5% (per the EIA).

So I think Big Coal will continue to be a very big part of our lives for many years to come – although with a strong political commitment the nuclear option could put a dent in our coal dependence.

  1. By Anonymous on March 9, 2010 at 1:45 am

    Unfortunately, I do not see nuclear really ramping up until the lights begin to flicker. Hopefully it won't be too late.

    I agree with the sentiment that we will burn through it all.


  2. By Anonymous on March 9, 2010 at 4:04 am

    There at the top of the list for the cheapest source of energy was Powder River Basin coal

    What is the cost of nuclear power plant fuel per Million BTU or per MWh of electricity generated?

  3. By rufus on March 9, 2010 at 4:32 am

    How could I take him seriously when everything he wrote about ethanol was completely wrong?

    We have serious problems coming down the pike, and we need serious people with serious solutions. This guy doesn't qualify.

    He's just in it to make Sensational statements, and sell books – at least as far as I can see.

  4. By Anonymous on March 9, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Currently renewable sources of electricity work fine as long as governments are willing to spend lots of other peoples money subsidizing them.

    They are very good at getting taxpayer money into special interest pockets. They mostly fail at generating electricity in an economic manner.

    Solar Industry Learns Lessons in Spanish Sun

    But as low-quality, poorly designed solar plants sprang up on Spain’s plateaus, Spanish officials came to realize that they would have to subsidize many of them indefinitely, and that the industry they had created might never produce efficient green energy on its own.


  5. By Anonymous on March 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Mountain top removal mining is another example of the unintended consequence of well meaning regulation.

    Prior to the 1977 clean air act revisions power plants met the emissions standards using low sulfur coal from the western US.

    Use of western coal = no mountain top removal mining in the east.

    The 1977 clean air act mandated the use of scrubbers, no matter how clean the exhaust stream was without scrubbers. This new regulation made eastern coal and mountain top mining economically viable.

    Time and time again environmental regulations are captured by rent seeking interests. The resulting regulations often end up causing far more harm than doing nothing would have.

    Environmental regulations need to set an emissions standard at the exhaust stream but leave the techniques used to meet the standard up to the operators.

    Rent SeekingBehind the Green Curtain

    By using western coal, utilities and other coal-burning facilities complied with the federal standard without installing costly scrubbers. Scrubbers were so expensive that many midwestern firms found that it was cheaper to haul low-sulfur coal from the West than to use closer, “dirtier” deposits.

    When the Clean Air Act was revised in 1977, eastern coal producers got even. As Bruce Ackerman and William Hassler note in Clean Coal, Dirty Air, eastern producers of high-sulfur coal elected “to abandon their campaign to weaken pollution standards and take up the cudgels for the costliest possible clean-air solution-universal scrubbing.”

    In other words, no matter how clean the coal was, any new facility would still be required to install scrubbers. This destroyed low sulfur coal’s comparative advantage. Since all new facilities had to invest in scrubbers, there was no longer a need to transport low-sulfur coal from the West to meet the S02 emission standard– the cheaper, high-sulfur coal from the East would suffice.


  6. By Kinuachdrach on March 9, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Any realistic comparison of life for ordinary people before the use of coal began in the Industrial Revolution and now has to draw the obvious conclusion — the use of coal has on balance improved life immeasurably.

    People forget — if they ever knew — that before the Industrial Revolution, many women died in childbirth. Just getting hot water to ensure basic cleanliness was an incredible challenge. People like the Mongols pre-Industrialization did not even give babies names until their first birthday — so many died in infancy. That was life before coal.

    It is easy for elitists and diletants to list the downsides of coal. Their snears are meaningless without a full accounting of the benefits too.

    You are right, RR, about the greatly expanded future role of nuclear fission. If an anti-coal activist is not a raging nuclear enthusiast, then he is a hypocrite.

  7. By Wendell Mercantile on March 9, 2010 at 9:48 am

    People forget — if they ever knew — that before the Industrial Revolution, many women died in childbirth. Just getting hot water to ensure basic cleanliness was an incredible challenge.


    They also forget that before the Industrial Revolution, England had almost denuded their entire country of trees as people cut them down to heat their homes, cook, and to make charcoal for blacksmiths and the early iron and glass works.

    That experiment with bio-fuels didn't go so well.

  8. By Kinuachdrach on March 9, 2010 at 9:50 am

    RR wrote: "This is primarily why I sit out the debates on climate change;"

    No need to sit it out anymore, RR. Pachuri at the UN's IPCC has been exposed as a fraud, pocketing money from fossil fuels (see GloriOil) while presiding over incompetence & shoddy work on global climate. Prof. Jones has admitted that there has been no warming in the last decade — and that warming in the 1990s was similar to that in the 1870s when human impacts were tiny compared to today.

    The chimera of Alleged Anthropogenic Global Warming has been dispelled — and remember, the partisans never even proposed a scientific mechanism for "Climate Change", only for Alleged Anthropogenic Global Warming.

    We don't have to worry about human production of CO2. But we do have to worry about the finite nature of fossil fuels.

  9. By rufus on March 9, 2010 at 10:34 am

    It's the finite nature of fossil fuels that is the most worrying (at least to me.) It has all become so politicized that I, personally, don't trust ANYONE'S accounting.

  10. By Kit P on March 9, 2010 at 11:28 am

    “mountaintop removals”

    But it is okay to excavate for a foundation for a hospital or a wind farm? Mountaintop removal is an example of an emotional criteria that is rather silly when you look at in context of every large city being ringed with interstate beltways.

    While I used to anti-coal, I think the industry has done a great job of reducing environmental impact of coal to an insignificant level in the context of modern living. Sure the world is not like it was when Daniel Boone first blazed a trail but when was the last small pox epidemic?

    My most recent electric bill has a $20.94 surcharge for Environmental Recovery (new pollution controls). Rate payers pay the cost.

    “Unfortunately, I do not see nuclear really ramping up until the lights begin to flicker.”

    Then look around, 30+ new nukes are in planning. By 2012, 4 will be in full construction in the US if the NRC issues permits. A nuke started many years ago is again under construction and should come on line in 2013. Improvements at existing plants have resulted in the the equivalent of 26 new nukes.

    One way to pay for new nukes is construction work in progress (CWIP). If you already enjoy cheap electricity from a nuke, pay for a new nuke with a surcharge so that your rates will stay low when the old plant is retired.

    I would rather pay a new nuke surcharge than put scrubbers on a old coal plant. I should disclose that my current project at work is new nukes.

  11. By russ on March 9, 2010 at 11:43 am

    I would rather pay a new nuke surcharge than put scrubbers on a old coal plant.

    100% correct!

  12. By Wendell Mercantile on March 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    I would rather pay a new nuke surcharge than put scrubbers on a old coal plant.

    Same here. Perhaps something like the Modular Nuclear Reactors Babcock & Wilcox is developing. Fairly small, modular, most of the assembly done in a central plant and the reactor unit shipped to a prepared site for installation.

    That would drastically reduce the current huge cost of designing every reactor piecemeal for a specific site. Once we can start churning something like this off a production line in numbers, economies of scale should cause a dramatic drop in the cost of nuclear power plants.

    Modular Nuclear Reactors

    A Preassembled Nuclear Reactor ~ A new modular design could make building nuclear reactors faster and cheaper

  13. By Paul on March 9, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Sounds like we have a (rare) consensus here that coal, while it may have some environmental impacts, has, and is, delivering a very high standard of living, which no one is prepared to give up (and the developing world wants).

    The fact that there is some much coal for the taking, and you can, if you want, convert it to gas or liquids, suggests that coal, one way or another, will be used for quite some time yet. It will almost certainly still be there once oil has run out, and if we still need liquid fuel, we'll start to use it.

    One thing I suspect the book doesn't highlight is that all production, and almost all consumption, on this continent at least, is under controlled, and regulated, conditions. And these regulations can be, and are regularly tightened/updated.

    Any new coal mine or power plant is built under fairly strict rules, just like any modern car. As the old plants get retired over the next decade, the remaining/new ones will be cleaner and more efficient, just like our vehicle fleet.

    To replace the entire coal (electricity) industry, with, say wind turbines, will require far more land area, than all the coal mines and powerplants combined, in addition to thousands of miles of transmission lines, access roads etc. They may not have removed the mountain top at Altamont Pass, but is has been rendered just as unuseable for anything else.

    And, we still need coal for steel making and the like, something which the naysayers tend to forget.

    This is not to say that things can't be improved further, and they can. But if the coal industry can meet the requirements that society sets, it has earned its right to exist.

  14. By Robert Rapier on March 9, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Mountaintop removal is an example of an emotional criteria that is rather silly when you look at in context of every large city being ringed with interstate beltways.

    Not really. What has happened is that watersheds have been destroyed and flooding has taken place where none took place before. Lots of people have been flooded out of their homes. That has nothing to do with emotional criteria of no longer having a mountain top to gaze upon. There have been real consequences that impacted real people. Goodell tells some of the stories and interviews some of the people in the book.


  15. By Milan on March 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    The policy solution for avoiding catastrophic climate change is pretty simple: we must leave most remaining coal and unconventional oil and gas underground:

    Carbon pricing is one way to encourage that, but ultimately our success or failure in curbing the cumulative emissions that cause climate change will depend on what proportion of these fuels we burn.

  16. By Milan on March 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm
  17. By Wendell Mercantile on March 9, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    It will almost certainly still be there once oil has run out, and if we still need liquid fuel, we'll start to use it.


    You're right. Our huge resource of coal is our emergency, back-up reserve. Always sitting there, waiting to be tapped into when we need it.

    When the day comes when we have to make a choice between using liquid fuels from coal to preserve the mobility we love so much; or to preserve our environment and lose that mobility, there is no doubt in my mind which way our society will decide: Mobility will win out.

  18. By Wendell Mercantile on March 9, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    …when you look at in context of every large city being ringed with interstate beltways.

    Kit P.

    You do make a good point about the city-ringing Interstate hihways. There is a group in Michigan marshaling support to stop an offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan. They say its "visual pollution" would have an adverse effect on their lifestyle and property values.

    Yet you could never take away the Interstate highways that allow them to get from Detroit and Chicago to their lake shore homes — Interstate highways that arguably have much greater adverse effect than a wind farm would ever have.

    Those people are thinking emotionally rather than analytically.

  19. By Wendell Mercantile on March 9, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Milan posted: Because of climate change, coal is no longer a source of energy that can be acceptable for humanity. Its continued use is incompatible with the stable climate upon which human prosperity and civilization depends.


    The earth's climate has never been stable. In fact, there is good reason to believe we are still warming after the end of the most recent Holocene Ice Age.

    It has been both warmer and colder in the past than it is now. In the future it will be both warmer and colder than it is now.

    I'm certainly no fan of dumping pollution into the atmosphere, but the earth's climate is dynamic and operates in long cycles we do not even understand.

    The earth's climate will go its own way, no matter what we do. Do you really think that what we do now will affect how the earth's climate will be in 50,000 years? 500,000 years? 1,000,000 years? or 500,000,000 years?

  20. By rufus on March 9, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    We are sure of one thing: The more CO2 we put in the atmosphere the Better the Crops.

  21. By rufus on March 9, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Here's another one of those University/State/Experience Private Company partnerships.

    Univ of Fla Breaks Ground on Ethanol Plant. Uses E Coli

  22. By Wendell Mercantile on March 9, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    We are sure of one thing: The more CO2 we put in the atmosphere the Better the Crops.


    And there must have been an awful lot of CO2 in the atmosphere in the past to grow all those plants and algae that turned into the massive amount of coal and oil we been relying on for the last couple of centuries.

    It's good for us that no one succeeded in stabilizing the climate 300 million years ago.

  23. By coal reports on May 26, 2011 at 3:44 am

    This is such a good and interesting read.For me,let’s just hope for the best.I believe all of us are trying to do our best to lessen the effect just like these business industries together with the governments is doing.We can’t ignore the fact of life that we will continue to use coal.Thanks for this great read and keep up the good post coming! Cheers!

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