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ISR Issue 56, November–December 2007


The Saudi Arabia of coal

Jeff Goodell
Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future
Houghton Mifflin, 2006
(new in paper 2007)
$15 324 pages

Review by ADAM TURL

WHEN PUNDITS talk about our shiny fiber-optic “post-industrial” economy, few discuss coal. Coal, the dirty black rock that fueled—literally—the industrial revolution, does not fit the mainstream narrative of progress.

Transporting and burning it pollutes the air. People die to bring it forth from the earth, from black lung or accidents like the ones that killed nine miners and rescue workers in Utah’s Crandall Canyon. Six thousand Chinese miners die each year.

When coal is mentioned, outside periodic disasters, it is now supposedly “clean” and “safe.” But the reality is that coal has not disappeared, nor is it clean or safe—either for miners or the environment. As Jeff Goodell writes in Big Coal: “335,000 people a year die from the effects” of pollution in East Asia—much of it caused by the burning of coal to fuel China’s rapid industrialization.

Since 1900, more than 100,000 have died in mine accidents and 200,000 from black lung disease. But coal is not some unfortunate rite of passage for newly industrializing nations—coal is still king in the U.S., where per capita “consumption…is three times higher than China,” about twenty pounds per day, around half of electricity consumed.

As sections of the ruling class look to develop “alternatives”—to maintain control over energy as oil reserves are depleted—coal is poised, along with nuclear energy, to take a larger place in the firmament of energy options.

Goodell writes, “The world is not going to run out of oil anytime soon, but it might run out of cheap, easy-to-get oil.” While less important for the U.S. strategically than oil or nuclear, coal is central for domestic energy production.

The U.S. is, according to the coal-industry boosters, “the Saudi Arabia of coal,” with the largest known deposits, some “25 percent of the world’s recoverable coal reserves—about 270 billion tons.” Companies claim this will provide for the U.S. at the current rate for 250 years.

While coal prices spiked in 2004–2005, it is vastly less expensive than oil, and a possible turn towards “alternatives” will mean a stress on greater production. This will mean more environmental damage and accidents.

Moreover, the “270 billion tons” of coal are not necessarily easy to get. Some of it is beneath homes and businesses, important agricultural land, and embedded in increasingly difficult geology. Extraction will—and already has—put miners at greater risk and left larger scars on the landscape.

Take the story of Maria Gunnoe. Her father, grandfather, and brothers worked in West Virginia’s mines. Mountaintop blasting led to six flash floods of her land in three years. One flood, packed with toxic slurry, nearly killed one of her children.

Gunnoe became an activist, trying to save her land—purchased by her grandfather, a coalminer who saved up for it while earning just $18 a week. Some of her neighbors turned on her, understandably worried that the few remaining coal jobs might disappear. But as Gunnoe points out, decades of giving the coal companies everything has left the state one of the poorest in the country.

It is the companies that are responsible for most lost jobs, not environmentalists. In the 1990s, half of the mines in West Virginia were shuttered, as owners rationalized production in the best-producing mines, introduced new technology, at the same time as new super-mines appeared in the western states.
While “coal operators like to blame environmentalists or…regulators for the industry’s decline,” writes Goodell,

what’s really doing them in is…Wyoming. Between 1997 and 2004, coal production in Wyoming grew 40 percent, while in West Virginia it dropped by 18 percent.… In West Virginia, four tons of coal are mined per employee hour; in Wyoming, the rate is thirty-nine tons per employee hour.

This is because wide-open spaces allow for more radical extraction processes, while the populated, already-mined West Virginia territory creates obstacles. The only thing countering this is the cost of transportation. A lot of energy is expended to haul—by train—the coal from the fields of Wyoming to the eastern markets. While this may be profitable, it is especially wasteful.

Jeff Goodell’s book is a great overview of the industry, and a great exposé of political corruption and environmental destruction. The book is oddly light, however, on the impressive legacy of struggles waged by miners themselves.

Some miners took a leading role in organizing across racial lines in the Jim Crow south. The United Mine Workers spearheaded the formation of industrial unions in the 1930s. Struggles continued late into the twentieth century, with rank-and-file struggles in the 1970s—immortalized in the must-see documentary Harlan County, U.S.A.—and even strikes in the 1980s. Most of this is simply missing from the book. But this legacy is key to understanding the way out of the dirty logic of coal.

Goodell, while a good critic of the coal industry, does not see workers as a big part of the solution. This is the weakness of Big Coal: its assumption that coal is a moral failing of consumers, when it really is the failing of a profit system over which most of us have no control.

Still, Big Coal is a useful book for understanding the industry. The solution is to use that information and organize, like the mineworkers in the 1970s and Maria Gunnoe today, to improve what we can now, and ultimately to wrest the controls from the hands of the operators and the politicians they’ve purchased.

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