President Bush made good on his debt. Within weeks of taking the oath of office, Bush began staffing regulatory agencies with former coal industry executives and lobbyists. Not surprisingly, Big Coal also played a prominent role in Vice President Dick Cheneys National Energy Policy Development Group, which was charged with crafting a new energy policy. The task forces recommendations were unabashedly coal-friendly, including a call for up to 1,900 new power plants over the next twenty years; a $2 billion, ten-year subsidy for clean coal technology; and a recommendation that the Department of Justice review enforcement actions against dirty coal burners.
Finally, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was an unexpected boon for Big Coal. Politically, it took the spotlight off many of the Bush administrations controversial coal- friendly energy policies, which were just beginning to make headlines. More important, 9/11 changed the tone of the debate about energy in America, making many of us reconsider the high cost of our dependence on oil from the Middle East. In our globally connected world, energy independence is more of a political slogan than a practical reality. But as long as American soldiers were dying in the oil-rich Middle East, it seemed downright unpatriotic to oppose coal.
For Big Coal, this change in Americas political and economic climate was transformative. Around the country, any open patch of ground near a railroad, a high-voltage transmission line, and a decent-size population of electricity consumers became a possible site for a new coal plant. As of 2005, more than 120 new plants, representing more than $99 billion in new investment, were either planned or under construction in the United States. Long-shuttered mines were reopening, and old coal miners were dusting off their boots. Wall Street analysts, in a swoon over the old rock (the Street loves big, expensive projects with all-but-guaranteed returns such as coal plants), began cranking out pro-coal reports with titles such as Come On Over to the Dark Side and Party On, King Coal! The rebirth of coal is not just about energy; it is also a cultural uprising of sorts, a taking back of a key part of Americas economic life that is, in its own way, as reactionary as the public campaigns against evolution or gay marriage. It is about the revenge of the Old Economy over all those technology-loving geeks who thought an energy revolution was at hand, who said that the forces of creative destruction would wreak havoc on one of the worlds great industrial empires, and who naively believed that the future would be powered by solar panels and biodiesel.
Lost in the hype, of course, is a sober accounting of what this new coal boom might really cost us. In January 2006, seventeen men died in Appalachian coal mines, including twelve men in an explosion at the Sago mine in northern West Virginia and two more after a fire in the Alma mine in the southern part of the state. Since 1900, more than 100,000 people have been killed in coal mine accidents, many forever entombed by collapsed roofs and tumbling pillars. Black lung, a disease common among miners from inhaling coal dust, can be conservatively estimated to have killed another 200,000 workers. And burning coal is even more deadly. In just the past twenty years, air pollution from coal plants has shortened the lives of more than half a million Americans. The broad legacy of environmental devastationacid rain, polluted lakes and rivers, mined-out mountainsis impossible to tabulate. In Appalachia alone, the waste from mountaintop removal mining (instead of removing the coal from the mountain, the mountain is removed from the coal) has destroyed more than 700 miles of streams, polluted the regions groundwater and rivers, and turned about 400,000 acres of some of the worlds most biologically rich temperate forests into flat, barren wastelands. Plumes of toxic particles drift from Ohio northeast to Maine; a molecule of mercury emitted from the stack of a power plant in Tampa ends up in the brain of a child in Minneapolis. If and when fruit trees start growing on the Alaskan tundra, American coal burners past and present will be largely responsible.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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