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August 26, 2007


By Jeff Goodell

Underground coal miners work in the darkness, invisible to most of us,
and when they die -- also in the darkness, from methane explosions or
rock falls or any of the hundreds of other hazards they face every day
-- their deaths usually merit just a few paragraphs in the local

The attempted rescue of trapped coal miners, on the other hand, is
often headline news. Networks love the real-time drama of the rescue
efforts -- it's reality TV from the heartland, complete with anguished
family members, heroic workers and dodgy mine owners. Sometimes, these
stories have happy endings. In 2002, nine miners who were trapped in a
coal mine in Quecreek, Pa., for 77 hours emerged as celebrities, feted
by Oprah and photographed for Vanity Fair magazine.

But not every mine rescue turns out so well, as the Crandall Canyon
mine disaster near Huntington, Utah, has reminded us over the past
three weeks. When three rescuers were killed trying to dig out the six
miners who've been trapped since Aug. 6, the story turned, as Gov. Jon
Huntsman Jr. put it, "from a tragedy into a catastrophe."

In the coming months, tough questions will be asked about exactly what
happened in the Crandall Canyon mine: Did federal mine safety
officials do everything they could to protect the miners? Did Robert
Murray, the co-owner of the mine, value profits over human life? And
why, at the beginning of the 21st century, when we can download real-
time images from Mars onto our laptop computers, has no one figured
out a way to track or communicate with coal miners underground?

"This is a defining moment for the history of mining," Huntsman said.
"We all expect to come out of this better and smarter and safer."

But if history is any guide, straightforward answers to what happened
in Utah will be as rare as oxygen in the collapsed mine. We can expect
a hue and cry about mine safety on Capitol Hill, a lot of blame-
shifting and finger-pointing and, most likely, some modest mine safety
improvements. But you can bet that you won't hear much about the real
issue, which is the high cost of the United States' dependence on
coal, and whether it's worth the price we pay.

Many Americans think that coal went out with top hats and corsets. In
fact, we burn more than a billion tons of coal each year in the United
States -- about 20 pounds a day for every man, woman and child. We
don't burn it in coal stoves, of course, but in big power plants that
generate about half the electric power in the country.

Politically, the war in Iraq has been a boon for coal, allowing coal-
friendly politicians to tout America's 250-year supply as a substitute
for our addiction to Middle Eastern oil -- even though, in the real
world, there is no overlap between coal (used to generate electricity)
and oil (used for transportation fuels, among other things). This is
not to say that the coal industry would not dearly love to get into
America's gas tank. In recent months, it has pushed hard for subsidies
and tax breaks that would accelerate the construction of coal-to-
liquid plants, a technology developed by the Nazis during the 1930s
that can transform coal into liquid fuels such as diesel (for
technical reasons, it's very difficult to make gasoline from coal).

Coal boosters argue that today's industry is nothing like the industry
of yore, and that many of the problems with the fuel -- like the fact
that air pollution from power plants kills people -- have been solved
by new technology. Coal is cheap, plentiful and clean, they say.
What's not to like?

Mine disasters such as the one in Utah, however, don't exactly fit
this script. It's tough to argue that you've left the 19th century
behind when you have Murray -- one of the most prominent coal barons
in the United States, well known for his political connections and
influence -- insisting that the collapse was caused by an earthquake,
directly contradicting seismologists who say that their instruments
clearly show that the seismic activity was the result of the collapse
in the mine. It may not surprise you that Murray also believes global
warming is a hoax.

Claims about a 250-year supply of coal won't stand up to scrutiny for
long, either. Yes, the United States has more coal than any other
nation. But we've been mining coal in this country for 150 years --
all the simple, high-quality, easy-to-get stuff is gone. What's left
is buried beneath towns and national parks, or places that are
difficult, expensive and dangerous to mine. The blunt truth is, if
we're going to become more dependent on coal, more miners will die.
How many mining tragedies will we accept in the name of "cheap"

Digging up hard-to-get coal will also devastate Appalachia, where huge
mountaintop-removal mines have already buried 700 miles of streams and
400,000 acres of forests. (Mountaintop-removal is a particularly
destructive form of mining in which entire mountains are blasted apart
to expose the coal seams inside; the rubble is typically dumped in
nearby valleys.) Instead of strengthening oversight of this type of
mining, the Bush administration proposed last week to loosen
regulations and allow it to expand. One recent study estimated that if
this practice continues, within 40 years the region disemboweled by
mining will be approximately the size of Rhode Island.

As for "clean coal," it's a nice advertising slogan, but it's not a
statement of fact. According to Americans for Balanced Energy Choices,
a nonprofit group funded by coal companies and coal-burning electric
utilities, emissions of conventional pollutants from coal plants have
fallen by one-third between 1970 and 2000, even as the use of coal to
generate electricity has tripled. What they don't tell you is that a)
the industry fought the laws that mandated many of those reductions;
and b) the amount of pollution spewed out by a coal plant is still

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific advocacy
group, annual emissions from a typical coal plant include 10,000 tons
of sulfur dioxide, the major cause of acid rain; 10,200 tons of
nitrogen oxide, a major contributor to smog; 500 tons of small
particles, which cause lung damage and other respiratory problems; 225
pounds of arsenic; 114 pounds of lead; and many other toxic heavy
metals, including 170 pounds of mercury, which can cause birth
defects, brain damage and other ailments.

But the big issue is global warming. Burning coal accounts for more
than one-third of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main
greenhouse gas. In a single year, a big coal plant emits as much
carbon dioxide as 1 million SUVs. Coal plants that are built today
emit just as much CO2 as those that were built 50 years ago (there
have been some marginal gains in efficiency, but not many). In the
future, carbon dioxide might be captured from coal plants and pumped
underground into abandoned oil wells or deep saline aquifers, but at
the moment, these solutions are unproven and expensive.

The coal industry is soaking up billions of dollars in tax breaks and
subsidies to develop technology and study the problem. But according
to climate scientists such as NASA's James Hansen, if we hope to have
a chance of avoiding dangerous changes to Earth's climate, we don't
have time to wait. That's why Hansen, along with former vice president
Al Gore and others, has called for a moratorium on new coal plants
that do not capture and store carbon dioxide pollution. And that's why
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are investing hundreds of millions of
dollars into clean-energy technology -- because they know that
confronting the problem of global warming is not just the biggest
challenge that civilization has ever faced, but also the mother of all
economic opportunities.

It may seem like a long way from the melting Arctic to the mine
disaster in Utah, but it's not. The lesson from Crandall Canyon is not
just that we need stronger mine safety laws and better federal
oversight of dangerous mines, but that as Americans, we need to be
more conscious of the costs and consequences of what goes on behind
the light switch. Otherwise, instead of coming out of this disaster
smarter, stronger and safer, we're likely to find ourselves repeating
this story again and again.


Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and
the author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy

Copyright 2007 The Washington Post Company