Coal will never stop blighting our planet, writes energy analyst Martin (SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future, 2012), and its good riddance can’t come too soon.
The author’s story is sympathetic to the human consequences of coal-production shutdowns yet unblinking about coal’s ruinous effects. There are indications that coal is on the way out but only because of economic calculations, namely costly government regulations and low-cost natural gas. For every step forward in coal’s containment, however, two steps are taken back; as a power source, it is abundant, widely distributed and economical, even if toxic for the planet. China and India are developing their coal-energy production at brisk paces (China “burns about as much coal every year as the rest of the world combined”). So, too, are Germany and Japan in the wake of recent nuclear incidents, while the United States has nearly 600 coal plants pumping out carbon dioxide, as well as the toxic sludge of arsenic, mercury, barium, chromium and other equally scary elements. Martin chronicles his visits to a handful of places where coal is an important part of not just daily life, but the region’s history and economic circumstances: the Tennessee Valley Authority landscape, now turned on its head with the withdrawal of federal funding; “dark and bloody” Harlan County, Kentucky, which can add a plague of prescription drug addiction to its black lung population; the coal boomtown catastrophe of Gillette, Wyoming; Ohio’s rollback of renewable-energy mandates. Then it’s on to China, where, despite its nods to reducing emissions, its coal burning will double by 2035, and Germany, which is fleeing the nuclear pipe dream and looking for economic surcease. The author is a levelheaded researcher and a caring individual as well as a graceful, commanding writer. Where he stands, however, is with the climatologist who told him that coal burning must be drastically reduced in the next 20 years or, environmentally speaking, “it’s game over.”
Martin is unequivocal and persuasive: The best use of coal is in holiday stockings.