BOULDER, Colo.—Fierce conflicts over coal are taking place around the globe, but author Richard Martin says the decline and ultimate demise of the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution is inevitable and cannot be reversed.
What he cannot predict, he says, is whether the transition to energy sources that are less damaging to the environment will occur soon enough to avert catastrophic climate change.
Martin, whose previous book outlined the case for thorium as a substitute for uranium in nuclear reactors, takes the reader on a tour of coal mining operations and power plants from Appalachia to northwestern China, where the coal industry remains a linchpin of the economy and a rare source of decent-paying jobs.
Even as the industry rails against what it calls the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” shutdowns of the remaining 580 coal-burning plants in the U.S. are accelerating, driven in large part by the availability of low-cost natural gas from shale. Globally, however, it’s a different story. Nearly 1,200 new plants are on the drawing board, most in China and India, and the use of coal is increasing in Germany and Japan as they transition from nuclear power.
Martin’s tour of coal country in “Coal Wars” begins with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which evolved from hydro dams to coal plants and is now shifting to natural gas. From there it’s a short hop to eastern Kentucky’s Harlan County, once the richest coal land on Earth but now a place that’s long on poverty and short on hope. With the decline in coal production, workers who spent their lives in mines find themselves too old to start over and too young to die.
Production remains high in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, producer of 43 per cent of the nation’s coal. It’s a largely mechanized process that requires a minimal workforce. The author takes us in the cab of a seven-story-high mechanical shovel, with a price tag of $10 million, as it fills a waiting line of trucks with a capacity of 400 tons apiece. That coal makes its way to mile-long trains that haul the black pulverized rock to power plants as far away as Virginia.
Because readers are probably less familiar with China’s coal industry, Martin’s descriptions of the breathtaking scale of mining operations in Shanxi province, one of the most polluted places on Earth, make for his most interesting accounts. But even at the huge Ta Shan mine complex in Datong, which employs 200,000 miners and supplies six per cent of the world’s coal production, jobs are disappearing as a result of mechanization.
There are signs of a nascent environmental movement. Hangzhou, along the southern coast, became China’s first city to wean itself from coal, and residents of Shanzhen blocked construction of a new coal plant within the city.
While applauding those types of small victories, Martin maintains that the only way to avert environmental catastrophe is to shut down the global coal industry root and branch. He would ease the impact on its workers by offering education, retraining and pensions for displaced workers that would be financed by putting a price on carbon emissions.
The author makes no bones about where he stands in the coal war and what he sees as its centrality to the Earth’s future. Readers who may regard his one-sided views as extreme can still benefit from the compelling descriptions of coal production and the many people whose lives depend on it.