Excerpt from Big Coal by Jeff Goodell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Big Coal

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

By Jeff Goodell

Big Coal
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2006,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2007,
    352 pages.

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A few words about the organization of this book. I’ve 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 coal’s 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 earth’s 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 itself—a 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 can’t 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 can’t be solved, or why it’s too expensive to solve, or to spin problems into nonproblems. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t lots of well-meaning people in the coal industry or that many of the engineers I met aren’t brilliant.

Keeping the lights on in a nation of 300 million people is a job that’s as challenging and complex in its own way as putting a man on the moon. I mean simply that from the industry’s 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 I’d 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.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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