One of the triumphs of modern life is our ability to distance ourselves from the simple facts of our own existence. We love our hamburgers, but we’ve never seen the inside of a slaughterhouse. We’re not sure if the asparagus that accompanies our salmon is grown in Ecuador or Oregon. We flush the toilet and don’t want to know any more. If we feel bad, we take a pill. We don’t even bury our own dead-they are carted away and buried or burned for us.
It’s easy to forget what a luxury this is-until you visit a place like China. Despite its booming economy in recent years, the insulating walls of modern life have not yet been fully erected there. In restaurants, the entrÈes are often alive in a cage in the dining room. Herbs and acupuncture needles inspire more faith than pharmaceutical drugs. Toilets stink. In rural areas, running water is a surprise, hot water a thrill. When you flip the switch on the wall and the light goes on, you know exactly what it costs-all you have to do is take a deep breath and feel the burn of coal smoke in your lungs.
To a westerner, nothing is more uncivilized than the sulfury smell of coal. You can’t take a whiff without thinking of labor battles and underground mine explosions, of chugging smokestacks and black lung.
But coal is everywhere in twenty-first-century China. It’s piled up on sidewalks, pressed into bricks and stacked near the back doors of homes, stockpiled into small mountains in the middle of open fields, and carted around behind bicycles and old wheezing locomotives. Plumes of coal smoke rise from rusty stacks on every urban horizon. There is soot on every windowsill and around the collar of every white shirt. Coal is what’s fueling China’s economic boom, and nobody makes any pretense that it isn’t. And as it did in America one hundred years ago, the power of coal will lift China into a better world. It will make the country richer, more civilized, and more remote from the hard facts of life, just like us.
The cost of the rough journey China is undertaking is obvious. More than six thousand workers a year are killed in China’s coal mines. The World Health Organization estimates that in East Asia, a region made up predominantly of China and South Korea, 355,000 people a year die from the effects of urban outdoor air pollution. The first time I visited Jiamusi, a city in China’s industrial north, it was so befouled by coal smoke that I could hardly see across the street. All over China, limestone buildings are dissolving in the acidic air. In Beijing, the ancient outdoor statuary at a 700-year-old Taoist temple I visited was encased in Plexiglas to protect it. And it’s not just the Chinese who are paying for their coal-fired prosperity. Pollution from China’s power plants blows across the Pacific and is inhaled by sunbathers on Malibu beach. Toxic mercury from Chinese coal finds its way into polar bears in the Arctic. Most seriously, the carbon dioxide released by China’s mad burning of coal is helping to destabilize the climate of the entire planet.
All this would be much easier to condemn if the West had not done exactly the same thing during its headlong rush to become rich and prosperous. In fact, we’re still doing it. Although America is a vastly richer country with many more options available to us, our per capita consumption of coal is three times higher than China’s. You can argue that we manage it better-our mines are safer, our power plants are cleaner-but mostly we just hide it better. We hide it so well, in fact, that many Americans think that coal went out with corsets and top hats. Most of us have no idea how central coal is to our everyday lives or what our relationship with this black rock really costs us.
In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day. We don’t use it to warm our hearths anymore, but we burn it by wire whenever we flip on the light switch or charge up our laptops. More than one hundred years after Thomas Edison connected the first light bulb to a coal-fired generator, coal remains the bedrock of the electric power industry in America. About half the electricity we consume comes from coal-we burn more than a billion tons of it a year, usually in big, aging power plants that churn out amazing quantities of power, profit, and pollution. In fact, electric power generation is one of the largest and most capital-intensive industries in the country, with revenues of more than $260 billion in 2004. And the rise of the Internet-a global network of electrons-has only increased the industry’s power and influence. We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks.
This was not how things were supposed to go in America. Coal was supposed to be the engine of the industrial revolution, not the Internet revolution. It once powered our steamships and trains; it forged the steel that won the wars and shaped our cars and skyscrapers and airplanes. It kept pioneers warm on the prairie and built fortunes for robber barons such as Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Without coal, the world as we know it today would be impossible to imagine. There should be monuments to coal in every big city, giant statues of Pennsylvania anthracite and West Virginia bituminous. It is literally the rock that built America.
But we’ve been hooked on coal for almost 150 years now, and like a Bowery junkie, we keep telling ourselves it’s time to come clean, without ever actually doing it. We stopped burning coal in our homes in the 1930s, in locomotives in the 1940s, and by the 1950s it seemed that coal was on its way out for electricity generation, too. Nuclear power was the great dream of the post-World War II era, but the near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 put an end to that. Then natural gas overtook coal as the fuel of choice. If coal was our industrial smack, natural gas was our methadone: it was clean, easy to transport, and nearly as cheap as coal. Virtually every power plant built in America between 1975 and 2002 was gas-fired. Almost everybody in the energy world presumed that the natural gas era would soon give way to even cleaner sources of power generation-wind, solar, biofuels, hydrogen, perhaps someday solar panels on the moon. As for the old coal plants, they would be dismantled, repowered, or left to rust in the fields.
But like many revolutions, this one hasn’t progressed quite as planned.
Energy-wise, the fundamental problem in the world today is that the earth’s reserves of fossil fuels are finite but our appetite for them is not. The issue is not simply that there are more people in the world, consuming more fossil fuels, but that as economies grow and people in developing nations are lifted out of poverty, they buy cars and refrigerators and develop an appetite for gas, oil, and coal. Between 1950 and 2000, as the world population grew by roughly 140 percent, fossil fuel consumption increased by almost 400 percent. By 2030, the world’s demand for energy is projected to more than double, with most of that energy coming from fossil fuels.
Of course, every barrel of oil we pump out of the ground, every cubic foot of natural gas we consume, and every ton of coal we burn further depletes reserves. For a while, our day of reckoning was put off by the fact that technological innovation outpaced consumption: the more fossil fuels we burned, the better we became at finding more, lulling us into a false belief that the world’s reserves of fossil fuels are eternal. But that delusion can’t last forever. In fact, there are increasing signs that it won’t last much longer.
Oil is the most critical fossil fuel for modern economies, underlying everything from transportation to manufacturing. In 2004, the world consumed about 80 million barrels of oil each day, about 30 percent of which came from the Middle East. The world is not going to run out of oil anytime soon, but it might run out of cheap, easy-to-get oil. As that happens, prices are likely to spike, fundamentally disrupting major parts of the world’s economy. You don’t have to buy into the apocalyptic scenarios that some doomsayers predict – the collapse of industrial society, widespread famine – to see that the end of cheap oil is going to inspire panic and economic chaos as the world scrambles to find a replacement energy source.
The situation with natural gas is not much better. In the United States, consumption of natural gas, which is mostly used for home heating and the manufacture of industrial products, as well as agricultural fertilizers and chemicals, has jumped by about 40 percent in the past two decades. About 85 percent of that gas came from domestic sources, but production in the United States has been flat for several decades, leading us to import more and more from Canada, where production is also beginning to peak. There are still substantial reserves in places such as Russia and Qatar, but the global shipping and trading infrastructure is woefully undeveloped. Upgrading it will cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete. Not surprisingly, natural gas prices have tripled in the past few years and caused home heating bills to rise rapidly in many regions of the country.
What about the other alternatives? Nuclear power can be used to generate electricity, but no new plants have been built in America in thirty years. This is primarily because nuclear plants are still haunted by the ghosts of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, as well as unresolved problems of radioactive waste. Even if the social and environmental hurdles could be overcome, nuclear plants are so expensive to build that a major resurgence is unlikely. And as much as we would all like to imagine we could live in a world powered by solar panels and wind turbines, these alternative energy sources are not yet capable of powering our high-tech economy.
Out of this, coal has emerged as the default fuel of choice. Coal has a number of virtues as a fuel: it can be shipped via boats and railroads, it’s easy to store, and it’s easy to burn. But coal’s main advantage over other fuels is that it’s cheap and plentiful. There are an estimated 1 trillion tons of recoverable coal in the world, by far the largest reserve of fossil fuel left on the planet. And despite a run-up in coal prices in 2004 and 2005, coal is still inexpensive compared to other fuels. In a world starved for energy, the importance of this simple fact cannot be underestimated: the world needs cheap power, and coal can provide it.
America is literally built upon thick seams of coal. Just as Saudi Arabia dominates the global oil market because of the geological good luck of having more than 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves, the United States is a big advocate for coal because it has the geological good luck of having more than 25 percent of the world’s recoverable coal reserves-about 270 billion tons-buried within its borders. As coal industry executives never tire of pointing out, this is enough coal to fuel America at the current rate of consumption for about 250 years. To put the size of its bounty into perspective, consider this: all of western Europe has only 36 billion tons of recoverable coal. China has less than half as much as the United States-126 billion tons. India and Australia, both big coal burners, have even less than China. The only country with reserves that come close to America’s is Russia, with 176 billion tons, but much of that coal is in remote regions and difficult to mine. Not surprisingly, coal boosters often refer to America as “the Saudi Arabia of coal.”
America’s great bounty of coal confers upon the United States many economic and political advantages. As a purely practical matter, it means that America will not go dark while scientists search for a replacement for fossil fuels. If the world becomes energy-starved, our reserves mean that America will have a source of fuel to keep our factories running and our cities well lit. If oil supplies collapse and prices skyrocket, we can begin a crash program to build coal liquefaction plants, which can turn coal into synthetic diesel. It won’t keep our SUVs rolling, but it might help keep our F-16s flying. Using a similar process, coal can also be transformed into synthetic natural gas, fertilizers, and a variety of industrial chemicals.
But this great bounty of coal is also a great liability. It means that America has a big incentive to drag out the inevitable transition to cleaner, more modern forms of energy generation. In a world that is moving toward energy efficiency, coal is a big loser. Alternative energy guru Amory Lovins estimates that by the time you mine the coal, haul it to the power plant, burn it, and then send the electricity out over the wires to the incandescent bulb in your home, only about 3 percent of the energy contained in a ton of coal is transformed into light. In fact, just the energy wasted by coal plants in America would be enough to power the entire Japanese economy. In effect, America’s vast reserve of coal is like a giant carbon anchor slowing down the nation’s transition to new sources of energy. And because coal is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels-coal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas-a commitment to coal is tantamount to a denial of a whole host of environmental and public health issues, including global warming. When you’re sitting on top of 250 years’ worth of coal, an international agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is easily seen as a crude attempt by jealous competitors to blunt one of America’s great strategic and economic advantages.
In America, the story of coal’s emergence as the default fuel of choice is inextricably tied up with corruption, politics, and war. California’s long, torturous “energy crisis,” which lasted through the summer of 2000 and culminated in rolling blackouts in January 2001, underscored the need for new investment in electricity generation and transmission. The collapse of Big Coal’s arch-nemesis, Enron, also helped coal regain some of its luster. Once heralded as a great modernizing force in the electric power industry, promising to bring a market-driven revolution to the old energy empire, Enron turned out to be a den of thieves. The company’s fall-one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history-helped throw the natural gas market into turmoil, sending prices skyrocketing and making coal so inexpensive in comparison that operating a coal plant became, as one industry consultant explained it to me, “like running a legal mint.”
The 2000 presidential election was another turning point. Democratic candidate Al Gore was one of the first American politicians to take global warming seriously, and anyone who takes global warming seriously is not a friend of Big Coal. Coal industry executives knew that if Gore was elected, regulations to limit or tax carbon dioxide emissions wouldn’t be far behind. So Big Coal threw its money and muscle behind George W. Bush, helping him gain a decisive edge in key industrial states, including West Virginia, a Democratic stronghold that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate in seventy-five years. After the disputed Florida recount, West Virginia’s five electoral votes provided the margin that Bush needed to take his seat in the Oval Office.
President Bush made good on his debt. Within weeks of taking the oath of office, Bush began staffing regulatory agencies with former coal industry executives and lobbyists. Not surprisingly, Big Coal also played a prominent role in Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group, which was charged with crafting a new energy policy. The task force’s recommendations were unabashedly coal-friendly, including a call for up to 1,900 new power plants over the next twenty years; a $2 billion, ten-year subsidy for “clean coal” technology; and a recommendation that the Department of Justice “review” enforcement actions against dirty coal burners.
Finally, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was an unexpected boon for Big Coal. Politically, it took the spotlight off many of the Bush administration’s controversial coal-friendly energy policies, which were just beginning to make headlines. More important, 9/11 changed the tone of the debate about energy in America, making many of us reconsider the high cost of our dependence on oil from the Middle East. In our globally connected world, “energy independence” is more of a political slogan than a practical reality. But as long as American soldiers were dying in the oil-rich Middle East, it seemed downright unpatriotic to oppose coal. . . .