A few words about the organization of this book. Ive structured it in three
sections that roughly track the life cycle of coal. The first, called The Dig,
deals with the mining and transportation of coal. The second, titled The
Burn, is about the politics of coal-burning power plants and the health effects
of air pollution. The final section, called The Heat, is about coals role in
climate change and how the industry intends to meet (or not meet) this
formidable challenge. By organizing the book this way, I hope to give a sense
of the broad impact that coal has on our lives. Too often, debates about
energy degenerate into arcane discussions about the regulatory minutiae of
sulfur dioxide emissions or flaws in the mathematical algorithms used to
calculate changes in the earths average temperature over the past
millennium. But coal is not just a form of energy subject to scientific
measurement. It is a hidden world unto itselfa world with its own economy,
subcultures, and values, yet one whose influence can be felt in every aspect
of our lives.
Like every writer, I bring my own baggage to this book. For the
record, I am not a member of any environmental organization and never have
been. My biases are less political than entrepreneurial. The Silicon Valley
town I grew up in may have been full of greedy strivers, but you cant say
they lacked vision or a willingness to tackle tough problems. Writing this
book, I found myself exploring a world that is the inverse of my hometown, a
place where instead the goal often seems to be to explain why a problem
cant be solved, or why its too expensive to solve, or to spin problems into
nonproblems. I dont mean to suggest that there arent lots of well-meaning
people in the coal industry or that many of the engineers I met arent brilliant.
Keeping the lights on in a nation of 300 million people is a job
thats as challenging and complex in its own way as putting a man on the
moon. I mean simply that from the industrys point of view, the goal of
technological change is never to reinvent the wheel; it is to figure out new
ways to keep the old wheels rolling. This is hardly surprising what industry
plots its own obsolescence? But for me, experiencing the coal industry was
a bizarre inversion of the can-do optimism Id grown up with. I sometimes felt
I had stumbled upon a group of mad scientists frantically scheming to invent
their own industrial fountain of youth.
Throughout this book, I frequently use the phrase Big Coal as
shorthand for the alliance of coal mining companies, coal-burning utilities,
railroads, lobbying groups, and industry supporters that make the coal
industry such a political force in America. The phrase is not meant to
suggest that the industry is monolithic, or that they all meet together in
smoke-filled rooms to cut deals and hammer out grand strategies. Obviously,
there are diverse players in the industry, with diverse points of view. You will
meet many of them in this book. But it is also true that the coal industry, like
the auto industry, the oil industry, the telecommunications industry, and just
about every other multibillion-dollar industry, can be identified by certain
common goals and pursuits. The phrase Big Coal is meant to suggest that
commonality, as well as to remind the reader of the power and influence of
the players who are involved.
Finally, a word about the many coal miners, power plant
engineers, and railroad workers I met in the course of reporting this book.
Whatever criticisms I may have of Big Coal, none of it should be taken as a
sign of disrespect for the difficult, dangerous work done by these men and
women on the frontlines. Keeping America powered up is not an easy job,
and the people who do it deserve our admiration and our thanks. They
certainly have mine.
Kenn Nesbitt is new Children's Poet Laureate(Jun 12 2013) Kenn Nesbitt has been named the new Children's Poet Laureate: Consultant in Children's Poetry to the Poetry Foundation, which noted that the two-year position...