Americas great bounty of coal confers upon the United States many economic and political advantages. As a purely practical matter, it means that America will not go dark while scientists search for a replacement for fossil fuels. If the world becomes energy-starved, our reserves mean that America will have a source of fuel to keep our factories running and our cities well lit. If oil supplies collapse and prices skyrocket, we can begin a crash program to build coal liquefaction plants, which can turn coal into synthetic diesel. It wont keep our SUVs rolling, but it might help keep our F-16s flying. Using a similar process, coal can also be transformed into synthetic natural gas, fertilizers, and a variety of industrial chemicals.
But this great bounty of coal is also a great liability. It means that America has a big incentive to drag out the inevitable transition to cleaner, more modern forms of energy generation. In a world that is moving toward energy efficiency, coal is a big loser. Alternative energy guru Amory Lovins estimates that by the time you mine the coal, haul it to the power plant, burn it, and then send the electricity out over the wires to the incandescent bulb in your home, only about 3 percent of the energy contained in a ton of coal is transformed into light. In fact, just the energy wasted by coal plants in America would be enough to power the entire Japanese economy. In effect, Americas vast reserve of coal is like a giant carbon anchor slowing down the nations transition to new sources of energy. And because coal is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuelscoal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gasa commitment to coal is tantamount to a denial of a whole host of environmental and public health issues, including global warming. When youre sitting on top of 250 years worth of coal, an international agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is easily seen as a crude attempt by jealous competitors to blunt one of Americas great strategic and economic advantages.
In America, the story of coals emergence as the default fuel of choice is inextricably tied up with corruption, politics, and war. Californias long, torturous energy crisis, which lasted through the summer of 2000 and culminated in rolling blackouts in January 2001, underscored the need for new investment in electricity generation and transmission. The collapse of Big Coals arch-nemesis, Enron, also helped coal regain some of its luster. Once heralded as a great modernizing force in the electric power industry, promising to bring a market-driven revolution to the old energy empire, Enron turned out to be a den of thieves. The companys fallone of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. historyhelped throw the natural gas market into turmoil, sending prices skyrocketing and making coal so inexpensive in comparison that operating a coal plant became, as one industry consultant explained it to me, like running a legal mint.
The 2000 presidential election was another turning point. Democratic candidate Al Gore was one of the first American politicians to take global warming seriously, and anyone who takes global warming seriously is not a friend of Big Coal. Coal industry executives knew that if Gore was elected, regulations to limit or tax carbon dioxide emissions wouldnt be far behind. So Big Coal threw its money and muscle behind George W. Bush, helping him gain a decisive edge in key industrial states, including West Virginia, a Democratic stronghold that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate in seventy-five years. After the disputed Florida recount, West Virginias five electoral votes provided the margin that Bush needed to take his seat in the Oval Office.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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