Sometimes ignorance feels like bliss. When you’re stowing your breakfast eggs and sausage, you don’t want to think too much about their origins. But ignorance is also dangerous. Take, for example, the electricity that powers the stove and coffeepot behind your morning breakfast.

Today, more than half of U.S. electricity comes from burning coal. This simple fact is pregnant with repercussions. “We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks,” writes author Jeff Goodell in Big Coal. And it’s not just the rocks that are dirty. Goodell takes us from the mines of Wyoming to the coal-burning plants of Georgia, going behind the scenes of legislative assemblies and the current Bush administration. He paints the picture of an unhealthy but pervasive influence wielded by coal companies, utilities and their various allies to the detriment of our own best interests. In our forward movement as a nation, he says, we got stuck on coal, and are having a hard time shaking the habit.

We use coal because it’s cheap and plentiful, but Goodell reveals the actual, hidden costs: dangers to miners in its extraction; harm to humans from mercury and particulates released into the atmosphere from its burning; and most worrisome, the consequent high levels of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

And our coal reserves may not be all that plentiful. Goodell argues that instead of 400 years of coal reserves in the United States, a figure often cited, we may have just decades of cheap coal, owing to the ever-greater difficulty of extracting it. This alone is a compelling argument to hasten down alternative paths.

The West has much at stake in whether we expand or constrict our dependency upon coal. Our railroads groan with lumbering coal trains. Our landscape is dotted with coal-fired power plants, and dozens more are proposed. Sausage-making is never pretty, but all Westerners need to understand how this thing called electricity is made. Big Coal provides a sound, provocative A-to-Z sweep of the issues.

 

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future
Jeff Goodell
352 pages,
softcover: $14.95.
Houghton Mifflin, 2007.