Reading guide for Big Coal by Jeff Goodell

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Big Coal

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

By Jeff Goodell

Big Coal

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About this Book

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About the Book

For most of us, the word "coal" conjures up images of puffing smokestacks in a nineteenth-century industrial city or the dark, dank atmosphere of a coal mine. Few of us think of coal when we power up our laptop, turn on the television, or load our iPod. But we should. Few of us fully realize the role that coal plays in America and around the world.

Coal executives, government officials, and energy companies have long promoted coal's virtues as a cheap, plentiful, homegrown source of energy. But coal has a dark side in the toll it takes on our health, our environment, and our communities.

In the tradition of Rachel Carson and Eric Schlosser, acclaimed journalist Jeff Goodell travels around the United States to examine the faulty assumptions underlying coal's dominance and to shatter the myth that cheap coal is the energy source for the twenty-first century. Big Coal is an intelligent, frank look at how and why coal has maintained a prominent role in the energy conversation. Through hard-hitting investigative reporting, historical background, and business analysis, Goodell highlights issues all Americans should understand about coal, why we need to care, and what needs to change.


Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion as well as provide a deeper understanding of Big Coal for every reader.

  1. In Big Coal, Jeff Goodell discusses the economic, health, and environmental implications of coal use. Many are invisible to the end user: we don't typically think about how much raw fuel it takes to supply electricity to run our computers or microwaves, or how many pollutants enter the atmosphere as a result, or how many cases of asthma the pollutants may trigger, for instance. Did you find Goodell's measure of coal's hidden costs alarming? Why or why not?
  2. In the face of the global oil crisis, coal power has gained prominence as a supposedly cleaner, more plentiful alternative fuel. But the often-cited estimate that the United States has 250 years' worth of cheap, accessible coal available has been revealed to be a gross exaggeration. How was this misinformation introduced into the energy dialogue, and what factors have perpetuated it? What other inaccuracies have been uncovered? If this most basic assumption about our energy reserves is wrong, how must we revise our plans for energy use in the future?
  3. Goodell cites some staggering statistics: coal-fired power plants in the United States are responsible for more than one-third of the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere each year; in just the past twenty years, air pollution from coal plants has shortened the lives of more than half a million Americans. Yet coal presently supplies more than half the electricity consumed in the United States. Given the detrimental effects of burning coal, why is this substance in such widespread use? What are some of the alternatives to coal energy, and how do these sources compare to coal?
  4. Big Coal lays bare the toll that coal mining exacts on individuals and communities. It documents the unsafe conditions and practices that persist in the coal-mining industry even today and that have led to horrific tragedies. Were you surprised to learn about these modern risks? Is it fair to argue that the human cost is outweighed by the gain to society?
  5. Coal mining takes a harsh toll on the land as well. For example, mountaintop-removal mining has permanently destroyed 1,200 miles of streams, polluted groundwater and rivers, and demolished some 400,000 acres of forest in Appalachia alone. What effect will this destruction of the land have on our general quality of life?
  6. What kind of statement is made by the struggle against big business undertaken by an individual like Maria Gunnoe? Would you do the same thing if you were in her shoes? Why or why not?
  7. In America today, the coal power industry operates for the most part in the same antiquated configuration envisioned by Samuel Insull at the dawn of the electric age: a state-regulated utility system whereby enormous centralized generating plants supply cheap energy for vast numbers of consumers. What were the benefits of this plan initially, and what are its drawbacks today? Should the infrastructure be reorganized? How? What are some of the obstacles to such a change?
  8. Goodell writes, "The fact that most Americans no longer fear that pollution from a coal-fired plant will kill them is both a sign of progress and a dangerous illusion." Discuss this seeming contradiction.
  9. How has our history of coal use contributed to global warming?
  10. One way to lessen the environmental impact of the coal industry is to reduce carbon emissions, either through greater efficiency in production or through carbon capture and storage, so that less carbon enters the atmosphere. What would be the short-term and long-term economic effects of such efforts?
  11. Coal-fired power plants are the largest emitters of mercury in the United States. How does the debate over mercury toxicity exemplify the larger problems inherent in drafting acceptable energy policy? How do the demands of American industry influence energy policy in this country? What effect does U.S. energy policy have on the rest of the world?
  12. What solutions do regulatory measures such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Environmental Protection Agency's Clear Skies initiative offer? What obstacles do they face?
  13. As Goodell points out, China has seen dramatic increases in its energy consumption in recent years. As the single largest user of coal energy, China's coal consumption is astounding. What cultural factors have contributed to this rise in energy demand? How will China's coal use affect greenhouse gas emissions in the future?
  14. In his afterword to the paperback edition, Goodell discusses shifts in the political and economic landscape that may lead to new energy solutions. How might these new efforts compel the industry to change?
  15. America seems to be in denial about the far-reaching effects of our energy use, when in fact, as Goodell puts it, "we risk stirring up more Hurricane Katrinas just so we can crank up the AC." How does one person's energy use contribute to the problem? Alternately, how can one person's energy conservation help alleviate the negative effects?
  16. Do you think Americans need to change our energy consumption habits? Is it even possible to do so after decades of energy greed? Have you altered your own habits since reading the book? Do you feel a need to address energy inefficiencies in your own life by installing energy-saving appliances in your home, for instance, or by offsetting your own carbon use?

For Further Reading

The following books may also be of interest to readers of Big Coal.
The End of Oil by Paul Roberts
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Water by Marq de Villiers

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Mariner Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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