MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
In the spring of 2009 I stood beside a country road in northern Tennessee,
looking over the worst industrial spill in U.S. history. I was traveling with a
pair of nuclear engineers while reporting for my first book, SuperFuel, about
the renaissance of thorium-based nuclear power. What we were looking at
now, though, was a calamity straight out of the nineteenth century.
A lumpy, black porridge stretched away from the road, coating the green
fields. It was as if an enormous black scab had formed over a mile-long gash
in the earth's surface. Several months before, in December 2008, a containment
wall at the Kingston coal plant had failed, releasing a billion-gallon flood
of coal ash-100 times the amount of material released in the Exxon Valdez
oil spill that decimated Alaska's coastline in 1989. Just about every coal plant
has a coal ash pond out back. The sludgy, grayish-black material contains a
devil's brew of toxins: arsenic, mercury, barium, chromium, and half a dozen
others. The Kingston spill released 140,000 pounds of arsenic into the Emory
River and turned about 400 acres of verdant farmland into a toxic waste site.
It would cost more than a billion dollars to clean up and would lead to years
of litigation and millions of dollars in fines for the Tennessee Valley Authority,
the owner of the Kingston plant. And it would become a potent symbol of our
deadly addiction to coal.
The book I was working on was about an advanced nuclear technology
that could become a solution for the world's energy crisis. But looking over the
Kingston disaster, it struck me that we are still dependent on a primitive energy
technology: burning carbon-laced rocks. As the former mayor of Boulder,
Colorado, would tell me years later, "We're using nineteenth-century technology,
developed in a twentieth-century regulatory environment, to supply our
power in the twenty-first century." The seed of this book was planted that day
Six years later, progress in shutting down coal is not encouraging. According
to the World Resources Institute, nearly 1,200 new coal-fired plants, with
a total capacity of more than 1,400 GW (three times the size of the U.S. coal
industry today), are proposed or planned in 59 countries. China and India account
for three-quarters of those. The developing world is desperate for new
energy sources, and coal is the cheapest and most readily available. By some
projections, coal use in China could double by 2035. While coal use is on the
decline in many countries, most notably the United States, it's increasing in
places like Germany and Japan, which both began to phase out their nuclear
plants in the wake of the nuclear accident that followed the Fukushima earthquake
and tsunami in 2010. Coal use spiked in Germany in 2013 and now accounts
for nearly half of its power generation. Coal's decline may be inevitable,
but it is putting on one hell of a death scene.
Consider the shipping industry. The first steamships began to transport
coal along the coast of England in the early nineteenth century. At that time
the dominant mode of seaborne transport was sailing ships. Just before the
start of World War I, a century after the advent of steam, there were still sailing
ships carrying cargo, some of them out of British ports. It took more than
a hundred years to shut down the world's fleet of commercial sailing vessels.
If it takes that long to shut down the coal industry, Mumbai, Manhattan, and
Miami will be underwater, and modern industrial society will be in some stage
This is not a book of policy, though, nor a polemic on the evils of coal. It's
a narrative of the front lines. Crafted as a series of journeys-through Appalachia,
across Wyoming's Powder River Basin, deep into China's Shanxi Province,
to the Yampa Valley of Colorado, and to southern Ohio-it's about the
people who find themselves caught up, in one way or another, in the massive
transformation that is roiling the energy industry, disrupting companies and
communities, and erasing forever a way of life. Although my point of view is
evident throughout-either we shut down coal or it will destroy us-the reporting
in the chapters ahead is meant to be unbiased and unblinking.
I try in writing and speaking to avoid war metaphors; they are almost
always overstated and they detract from the horrors of real war. In this case,
obviously, I've made an exception. I justify this because the struggle over the
future of coal is a war that is as existential, imperial, and immensely destructive
to life and property as the world wars of the twentieth century.
First, at stake in the coal wars is our survival-perhaps not as a species, but
certainly as people inhabiting societies and economies that are based on cheap,
dirty energy. The battle lines are clearly drawn: on one side are the people
working to shut down the industry, and on the other those fighting to preserve
it, plus a vast group of interested spectators that, ultimately, includes everyone
alive today along with their children and grandchildren.
Like many wars, this one features an empire. The empire of coal has neither
a capital nor a single emperor, but rather many lords ruling many fiefdoms.
It is global in reach, expansive in nature, and reactionary in politics. It's
backed by enormous treasure and armies of cheap labor, and like the Roman,
the Ottoman, and the Chinese empires, its urge for self-preservation at all costs
will probably keep it running, decaying and diminished, long past its natural
end. Historians will one day comb the archives, seeking to pinpoint its apogee
and the moment the fall began.
Finally, the coal wars have already claimed casualties. They include not
only a Mongolian sheep herder named Mergen who was killed when he tried to
block a coal truck at a huge mine in his country in 2011, but also the thousands
who still die every year in mining accidents, from black lung and emphysema,
and as a result of air and water pollution from the coal industry-as well as
those who will lose their homes and their livelihoods to global warming.
There will be many more. I have tried to document them before they fall.