Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Big Coal by Jeff Goodell (Book Review #3 of 2016)

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future
This is one author's attempt to frame the modern American coal industry explain where it has come from and ask where it is going. I read Barbara Freese's Coal: A Human History after this book and I highly recommend Freese's work over Goodell's. Freese is a better writer and also takes the time to look at the broader worldwide history of coal, beginning in England, and looks at the development of the entire U.S. economy touching coal. Both books have a strong bent of environmental concern.

Is there such a thing as clean coal or should we relegate coal to the dustbin of history? The "dirty secret" seems to be "no," or maybe the dirty secret is that the figures on coal abundance in America are misleading in that only 20-30% of what is within our borders is economically viable to mine. The "War on Coal" and environmental regulations are not the main reason for the industry's decline, they simply speed up what is already projected. Goodell writes that companies like Georgia Power spend a lot of money on material and seminars casting doubt on climate change in small, rural, red state areas to help portray any coal-bashing as mythological. I recently read Sen. Rand Paul's book where he makes the statement "The coal industry is not destroying the natural beauty of Kentucky." Even miners who rely on the mines for a living wouldn't go that far.

Big Coal's weakness is that it focuses solely on America and ignores the wider history of coal and its relationship to other energy markets. Some of the reviews on Amazon by environmentalists suggest that the author's optimism on geological CO2 storage and Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle is misplaced or that he caved somehow to special interests. It is not a really hard-hitting expose, most of what is discussed is already common knowledge. There is criticism of Bush-Cheney energy policy and a retelling of the disappointment of Christine Todd Whitman. (Also claims the war in Iraq was good for the little energy companies in the US because of a greater desire for energy independence.) While the future may be in clean technologies, the author ignores any waste or untoward activity regarding taxpayer subsidies to green energy.

Goodell examines various ideas like carbon sequestration and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plants. Goodell writes that IGCC plants cost only 20% more than a normal plant, so he chafes at industry complaints and lobbying over cost concerns and points to one in Tennessee which turned a profit without federal subsidy. However, others argue that the cost estimates are higher than what Goodell thought reliable, so the debate continues. There is not a great deal of depth is given to solar or other advancements; reading a magazine article could get you about as much.

For me, the most interesting chapter in the book focused on the role the monopolist railroad BNSF has in helping determine the price of coal. Transportation costs via BNSF are a major factor keeping Wyoming coal from having an even larger advantage over Appalachian coal. The railroad has a reputation for retaliating if coal companies sue or complain. The author also records the difficult life of railroad engineers and safety issues-- how many work long shifts and get little sleep; think of the horror stories you've heard of airlines and then increase it by a factor. Instead of carrying passengers, they carry toxic freight that can poison a community if it derails in the right spot.

The average American burns 20 pounds of coal a day. I'm writing just after 2015, when Americans finally got more electricity from natural gas than coal in the last several months (according to the US Energy Information Agency). Appalachian coal is less marketable as the glut of oil and natural gas have put downward pressure on prices. Coal in Montana, while dirtier and harder to remove mercury from, is much cheaper (and easier in terms of productivity) to mine than the bituminous Appalachian variety. The boom-bust cycle of coal mining here in Kentucky is currently in a bust, and unemployment rates in these regions are well above the national average; many are migrating West to find jobs in automobile plants in Kentucky which are, ironically, experiencing a boom due to low gasoline prices.

If there is a villain in the book, it's Massey Energy Chairman Don Blankenship. Even before the 2010 Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, Blankenship's firm had a reputation for cutting corners and being the "biggest bully in the sandbox" when it came to lobbying and litigation. Blankenship lived in the region where Massey operated and just miles from where groundwater became polluted by his company's coal slurry. Massey apparently paid to build his own water line to a neighboring town than rely on the local well water; he declined to help his neighbors do likewise. 

There are not actually very many secrets in this book. A decent primer on the state of the American coal industry circa 2007. 3 stars.

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