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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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 352 pages
    Apr 2007, 352 pages

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Until I was forty years old, I had never seen a lump of coal. As a kid, I’d visited hydroelectric dams in the Sierra Nevada foothills and wind farms above San Francisco Bay. These sights made generating electricity seem easy and natural, like growing wheat or getting a suntan. It gave me the idea—one that I clung to for years—that it really didn’t matter if I left the light on in the other room, because it just meant the water turbines and the windmills had to spin a little longer. Of course, this is precisely the kind of blue-state ignorance that red staters scorn, and justifiably so, since the red states often bear the burden of the blue states’ cluelessness. (Half the electricity in Los Angeles, for example, is imported from coal-fired power plants in Nevada and New Mexico.) But it is also the kind of cluelessness that power companies have spent years encouraging. If you doubt this, just try deciphering the spinning wheels on the electric meter outside your house. Power companies figured out long ago that the more they isolate consumers from the true costs and consequences of their kilowatts, the more successful the companies will be.

I lost my innocence in the summer of 2001, when the New York Times Magazine sent me down to West Virginia to write about the surprising comeback of coal during the early days of the Bush administration.

I began my research by visiting one of the largest mines in West Virginia, Hobet 21, which is owned by Arch Coal, the second-biggest coal company in America. When I pulled up to the mine gate, I was a few minutes early for my meeting with a mine engineer, so I got out of the car and wandered around. Down by the railroad tracks, I confronted a large pile of the most beautiful black rocks I had ever seen. They were black beyond black and seemed to pull the light out of the sky around them. It took me a moment to realize that these rocks were coal.

Over the next several weeks, I visited several coal mines and talked with the engineers who worked in them. I drove to Cabin Creek, a narrow valley south of Charleston, West Virginia, where, in 1913, mining company thugs opened fire with Gatling guns on their own workers. I flew in a small plane over the southern coalfields, getting a bird’s-eye view of the devastation wrought by mountaintop removal mining. I visited filled-in creeks and drove around with a local politician who explained to me with a straight face that flattening West Virginia was actually a good thing, because the state needed more level ground for golf courses.

All of this was quite eye-opening to me. I felt as if I had stumbled into the gritty underbelly of modern life, the dark, dirty place where the real work is done and the real deals are cut.

The most memorable moment of that trip—and, in some ways, the real beginning of this book—was a dinner I had with Bill Raney, the head of the powerful West Virginia Coal Association. We met at the bar at the Marriott hotel in Charleston, not far from Raney’s office. Raney is a short, dapper man with a folksy West Virginia drawl. He was dressed that night in an expensive suit and nice tie, looking more like a Beltway politician than a man who grew up in a coal camp. It was less than a year after the 2000 election, and Raney’s Beltway credentials were at an all-time high after his having helped deliver the state of West Virginia—and the Oval Office—to President Bush.

But it wasn’t Raney’s political connections that impressed me. Nor was it his defense of mountaintop removal mining as a necessary evil if West Virginia is to compete with coal mines in other states. It was what he said about technology. “The thing that people don’t realize,” Raney drawled, “is that if it weren’t for coal, there would be no Internet, no Microsoft, no Yahoo!” He leaned over his dinner plate. “Did you know that it takes more electricity to charge up a Palm than it does to run an ordinary refrigerator? And that every time you order a book from Amazon, you burn over three pounds of coal?”

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

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