Saturday, August 12, 2006


By Jeff Goodell

Houghton Mifflin, $25.95, 352 pages


Fifty percent of the electricity used in the United States comes from power plants that burn coal. About 25 percent of our power comes from plants using natural gas, a costly fuel with limited domestic reserves that is also used on a large scale for home heating. (During the recent heat wave, natural gas futures went up 16 percent in one day.) Nuclear power, accounting for 20 percent, has been slow to develop because of safety and cost concerns. Hydropower provides seven percent. Alternatives such as wind and solar will not be major factors in our energy balance for many years.

In “Big Coal,” Jeff Goodell draws on three years of research and travels in the United States and China. He went to places where coal is mined, to people who mine it, to the companies who burn it to produce electricity, and he rode the railroads that carry it.

He treats the reader to vivid stories of people on both sides of the debate from coal barons to mining accident survivors, from power company officials to families who claim health problems from power plants. He also relates conversations with researchers who share his view that carbon dioxide from power plants will trigger disastrous climate change.

Mr. Goodell has some harsh things to say about the coal and power industry. He writes that “The rebirth of coal is not just about energy; it is a cultural uprising of sorts … that is, in its own way, as reactionary as the public campaign against evolution or gay marriage.” He goes on to say that “old coal plants are giant bulwarks against change” and that “America’s vast reserve of coal is like a giant carbon anchor slowing down the nation’s transition to new sources of energy.”

“Big Coal” complains that coal-fired power plants impose great hidden costs on society, not only from climate change but from premature deaths from air pollution, and the environmental impact of both surface and underground mining.

Mr. Goodell is highly critical of what he sees as an alliance between the Bush administration and the coal and power industry. He believes this has led to a relaxation of mining and air quality regulations and a lack of concern over global warming. We are told that a turning point in the fortunes of the coal industry was the election of George W. Bush.

What are the facts? The capacity of coal-fired power plants has stayed at just 300 million kilowatts for 20 years, and most existing plants are 30 to 40 years old. Growth in demand for electricity has been met by running the coal plants for more hours per day and by a huge increase in the building of power plants fired by natural gas. About 1.1 billion tons of coals are mined every year by 75,000 mine workers. Whereas in 1923 it took over 700,000 miners to produce 560 million tons.

The industry is highly mechanized, with some 70 percent of production coming from surface mines. Only some small non-union mines still follow traditional pick and shovel methods. Mining tragedies still happen, like the recent one at the Sago mine in West Virginia, but mining is much safer than in the past, despite Mr. Goodell’s stories of lax oversight by Bush supporters appointed to the federal government’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

One of the hidden costs, according to Mr. Goodell, is the environmental impact of surface mining. Before the passage of the 1977 Surface Mining Act, surface mines were not reclaimed, but since then every new mine has had to adhere to a detailed reclamation plan specified in its permit.

On completion of mining, failure to execute the plan triggers large financial penalties. The Office of Surface Mining (OSM) collects a tax on every ton of coal that is mined to pay for reclamation of mines operated before the 1977 Act. So far, OSM has collected $7 billion and spent $5.5 billion on reclamation.

Another hidden cost of coal burning cited in “Big Coal” is 27,000 premature deaths a year from air pollution. But vehicles are probably a greater source of dangerous pollutants than power plants. Furthermore, there is a reference in the book to an EPA claim that the 1990 Clean Air Act will lower premature deaths by 23,000 a year. Together, these costs cannot be considered significant factors in the design of a national energy policy.

An interesting and controversial piece of legislation discussed in “Big Coal” is the New Source Review. Under NSR, new power plants put in service after 1977 must meet stringent pollution-control requirements. Plants built prior to 1977, however, are required only to install such controls when they are expanded or substantially upgraded in a way that emissions are increased; for example, when a new generating unit is added to an existing plant.

But a more likely situation arises when an old plant needs urgent repair to key components such as its turbine, generator and boiler to restore its generating capacity. In a case like this, EPA will say that the NSR has been triggered.

Unfortunately, this has discouraged power companies from making cost-effective plant modifications to improve efficiency and thereby reduce air pollution. In 1999, Janet Reno brought a suit against seven utilities and the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA was accused (but later cleared) of violations at 32 coal-fired plants, although it claimed that it was replacing aging boiler tubes and ash handling equipment, and overhauling turbines and generators. Detroit Edison was also held in violation for repairing turbine blades.

The Bush administration has proposed reform of NSR so that it does not deter plant upgrading, but again Mr. Goodell accuses it of helping its friends in the power business.

In “Big Coal,” Goodell sets out to educate his readers on what he sees as the dangers of global warming. He has no doubt that the rise of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will lead to climate changes, and that such changes will be harmful to the human race.

He believes that Hurricane Katrina shows that climate change is already taking place (NOAA has now rejected that hypothesis). He is convinced that the only solution is to lower CO2 emissions starting now. He is in favor of the Kyoto Protocol, sponsored by the United Nation that simply mandates a cap on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Many countries have signed on to Kyoto and agreed to reduce GHG emissions by a certain amount (eight to 10 percent) from their 1990 levels by 2010. For example, the EU countries have collectively set a target of eight percent; but they will fall far short because of a 24 percent increase in GHG emissions from the transportation sector.

The U.S. Senate, in a rare and unanimous display of common sense, voted 95-0 against ratification of the Kyoto accords. Russia generously signed the agreement in 2005 because its emissions are well below 1990 levels due to the collapse of the Soviet Union (anyway, who would trust Russia to keep score). Clearly, no country, the United States included, can simply shut down operating power plants because of debatable estimates of global temperatures 100 years from now.

A weakness of “Big Coal” is its failure to face reality. In this summer’s recent heat wave, the nation’s power system met the challenge, but only just. Shortage of reserve capacity and an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants is a nationwide problem; most of the existing coal-fired power plants were built in 1960s and 1970s, and few new ones have been built since 1990.

Natural gas has taken up the slack. In the past 15 years over 150 million kilowatts of gas-fired capacity has been installed and more plants are being built. The natural gas consumed to replace the energy from old coal plants, as they are retired, plus rising demands for homes and transportation will strain the existing gas supplies and create a need for imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Therefore, new coal-fired plants — with the latest systems to control pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter and mercury — must be built to tide the country over until nuclear power is revived.

Mr. Goodell ridiculed a ceremony he attended to promote the proposed Prairie State coal-fired plant in Illinois that, much to his chagrin, is supported by a Democratic governor. This plant will employ pollution control technology that will hold SO2 emissions to 24 percent of existing Illinois plants. The coal will come from a nearby mine owned by one of Mr. Goodell’s arch villains, the Peabody Coal Company.

For the future, there will be new nuclear plants and new forms of power plants using coal gasification that allows easier capture of CO2 (well described in the book). American Electric Power (AEP) has applied for a permit to build a 600,000 kW integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant in Ohio and possibly at other sites in West Virginia and Kentucky. But AEP will have to run an obstacle course of permits and environmental protesters who no doubt will find much to please them in “Big Coal.”

William T. Smith writes from McLean, Va.

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