Until I was forty years old, I had never seen a lump of coal. As a
kid, Id visited hydroelectric dams in the Sierra Nevada foothills and wind
farms above San Francisco Bay. These sights made generating electricity
seem easy and natural, like growing wheat or getting a suntan. It gave me
the ideaone that I clung to for yearsthat it really didnt matter if I left the
light on in the other room, because it just meant the water turbines and the
windmills had to spin a little longer. Of course, this is precisely the kind of
blue-state ignorance that red staters scorn, and justifiably so, since the red
states often bear the burden of the blue states cluelessness. (Half the
electricity in Los Angeles, for example, is imported from coal-fired power
plants in Nevada and New Mexico.) But it is also the kind of cluelessness
that power companies have spent years encouraging. If you doubt this, just
try deciphering the spinning wheels on the electric meter outside your house.
Power companies figured out long ago that the more they isolate consumers
from the true costs and consequences of their kilowatts, the more successful
the companies will be.
I lost my innocence in the summer of 2001, when the New York
Times Magazine sent me down to West Virginia to write about the surprising
comeback of coal during the early days of the Bush administration.
I began my research by visiting one of the largest mines in West
Virginia, Hobet 21, which is owned by Arch Coal, the second-biggest coal
company in America. When I pulled up to the mine gate, I was a few minutes
early for my meeting with a mine engineer, so I got out of the car and
wandered around. Down by the railroad tracks, I confronted a large pile of the
most beautiful black rocks I had ever seen. They were black beyond black
and seemed to pull the light out of the sky around them. It took me a
moment to realize that these rocks were coal.
Over the next several weeks, I visited several coal mines and
talked with the engineers who worked in them. I drove to Cabin Creek, a
narrow valley south of Charleston, West Virginia, where, in 1913, mining
company thugs opened fire with Gatling guns on their own workers. I flew in a
small plane over the southern coalfields, getting a birds-eye view of the
devastation wrought by mountaintop removal mining. I visited filled-in creeks
and drove around with a local politician who explained to me with a straight
face that flattening West Virginia was actually a good thing, because the
state needed more level ground for golf courses.
All of this was quite eye-opening to me. I felt as if I had stumbled
into the gritty underbelly of modern life, the dark, dirty place where the real
work is done and the real deals are cut.
The most memorable moment of that tripand, in some ways,
the real beginning of this bookwas a dinner I had with Bill Raney, the head
of the powerful West Virginia Coal Association. We met at the bar at the
Marriott hotel in Charleston, not far from Raneys office. Raney is a short,
dapper man with a folksy West Virginia drawl. He was dressed that night in
an expensive suit and nice tie, looking more like a Beltway politician than a
man who grew up in a coal camp. It was less than a year after the 2000
election, and Raneys Beltway credentials were at an all-time high after his
having helped deliver the state of West Virginiaand the Oval Officeto
But it wasnt Raneys political connections that impressed me.
Nor was it his defense of mountaintop removal mining as a necessary evil if
West Virginia is to compete with coal mines in other states. It was what he
said about technology. The thing that people dont realize, Raney
drawled, is that if it werent for coal, there would be no Internet, no Microsoft,
no Yahoo! He leaned over his dinner plate. Did you know that it takes more
electricity to charge up a Palm than it does to run an ordinary refrigerator?
And that every time you order a book from Amazon, you burn over three
pounds of coal?
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