Why we burn coal
Special to CNN.com
(CNN) -- It may come as a surprise to many Americans that there are still coal miners sweating in the heat and darkness hundreds of feet underground.
Coal, after all, is a symbol of the industrial age; it's the shiny black rock that powered steamships up the Hudson and railroads across the West. We like to think of ourselves as a high-tech country, one that has evolved beyond dependence on a 180 million-year-old rock that has to be dug out of the ground with sweat and muscle.
In fact, Americans are as dependent upon coal today as ever -- perhaps more so. Coal generates more than 50 percent of the United States' electricity -- without it, our digital lives would be impossible to imagine. We burn about a billion tons of it a year -- besides keeping our lights on, it powers the $218 billion electric utility industry, the third largest in the country (behind petrochemical and auto). We also have the biggest reserves of coal in the world -- an estimated 275 billion tons still in the ground. As the coal industry guys like to boast, "America is the Saudi Arabia of coal."
Of course, America's romance with coal is deeply troubled. Besides the obvious dangers of working in tunnels deep underground, the mining and burning of coal is one of the most environmentally destructive acts humans engage in -- it rips up our mountains, pollutes our air and water. The burning of coal sickens hundreds of thousands of people a year, and has been linked to asthma, lung cancer, and mercury poisoning.
So why are we still burning so much of it? Much of the rest of the developed world, after all, is deeply committed to weaning itself off the rock. Lots of people would like to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of President Bush and his pals in the fossil fuel industry, but of course that's too easy. Coal is cheap, it is plentiful, and we don't have to buy it from Kuwait. And over the generations, the coal industry has built up tremendous inertia, both in the weight of the big iron infrastructure of railroads and power plants, and in its political and academic influence. Within the industry itself, there is a sentimental attachment to the whole idea of burning rocks that no windmill or fuel cell will ever replicate.
There is also something deeply American about coal. It appeals to the plainspoken side of our national character -- it's a frank, strong, unfussy mineral, the geological equivalent of a Johnny Cash song. It's no accident -- it's decreed by federal law, in fact -- that the heat in the U.S. Capitol must come from coal.
But it's also emblematic of the devil's bargain of progress. Yes, America is blessed with vast reserves of coal, and yes, because of this, we have abundant power to run our country, but the price of doing this may be measured not only in blasted mountaintops and asthmatic children, but also in the lives of miners who toil in the darkness to bring us our daily light.
Jeff Goodell is the author of "Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family." He is working on a book about coal and energy in the United States.
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