The coal industry takes its lumps
To Georgia residents, Savannah Electric billboards featuring white pelicans or cute frogs are a familiar sight. The message is clear: Savannah Electric and its parent, the Southern Company, are friends to nature and beauty. The truth, however, is a little more complex: Behind all that (relatively) cheap and reliable power is a string of coal processing plants which are anything but friendly to the environment. The hidden truth about coal the dangers to miners, health risks from air pollution and accumulating greenhouse gases is what Jeff Goodell is after in his groundbreaking book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future. Goodell explores not only the familiar risks black lung and collapsing mines but also those coal hazards that rarely make it into our collective unconscious: mountain-top removals that destroy nearby residential communities and uncontained carbon dioxide emissions that accelerate global warming. He also delves into the politics of coal and how this nearly invisible resource is also an invisible force in elections at every level; for example Goodell makes a convincing case that coal barons in West Virginia bought a historically democratic voting state for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Goodell specifically targets the Southern Company, which is a conspicuous player in state and national politics, spending more than $25 million in federal lobbying from 2001 to 2004. For comparison's sake, Goodell notes that other comparable power companies, like American Electric, spent less than $5 million during the same period. Goodell also uncovers the real story behind Bush's failure to curb carbon dioxide emissions, as he clearly promised to do while campaigning. Big Coal points an indicting finger at Vice President Dick Cheney who, Goodell speculates, did some behind-the-scenes finagling among prominent senators to keep America's signature off the international Kyoto Treaty. But the picture Goodell paints is not one of inevitable disaster. The technology to process coal without releasing so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is already available. It's just a matter of admitting that short-term profit losses will be more than compensated by the health of our lungs and the lungs of the planet. Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.