There is no doubt about which side of the great divide over coal Richard Martin stands on. “If we don’t shut down Big Coal, the fight against global warming is lost,” the energy analyst writes early on in Coal Wars.
Still, Martin does more than an adequate job of laying out both sides of the debate, both in the United States and in China, the world’s largest carbon emitter since it surpassed the United States in 2007. Both countries struggle with the task of weaning themselves off the cheap, abundant energy coal provides despite the increasing damage it does to the environment.
Martin reminds us that coal more than holds its own in this category. He cites the 2008 failure of a containment dam at a Tennessee mine that released a billion-gallon flood of coal ash, 100 times the amount of pollutants from the Exxon Valdez, as well as a 2013 “coal storm” in China that left a grimy black coat on people and the environment. Such incidents cannot be easily dismissed.
The author examines the difficult transition away from coal through the lives of those who rely on the rock for a living, the environmentalists who clean up after them and the well-intentioned who are attempting — vainly for the most part — to create a post-coal economy that won’t impoverish the coal dependent.
“The coal wars make people think and speak in biblical terms. Environmental catastrophe on the one hand, economic meltdown on the other,” Martin writes.
He is likewise inclined, describing the coalition of coal and utility officials who convinced Ohio to roll back state clean energy mandates last year as prehistoric creatures. “The meteor was hurtling toward Earth. In Ohio, though, dinosaurs still walked the earth, grazing contentedly,” he writes.
Big Coal will also be infuriated by his judgment that China stands a better chance of addressing the climate change challenge than the United States. But his reasoning — that China is a more dynamic, energetic society that is accustomed to upheaval and is not encumbered by democratic considerations — makes sense unless your thinking is clouded by misguided patriotism.
Despite what advocates stubbornly maintain, Martin’s second greatest service is assuring us that there is no black and white here, no simple elegant solution that will keep distress and cost to a minimum. His biggest contribution is reminding us that this is a global problem and that we are all complicit, from the miners who expose themselves to health and safety risks to scrape coal out of the earth, to those far removed from the mines and power plants who innocently flip the switch without realizing the consequences of their unfettered consumption of cheap energy.
Coal demand in Europe revived after the 2010 earthquake in Japan that led to the accident at that country’s Fukushima nuclear plant. China’s significant renewable energy initiatives will not change the fact that, according to analysts Martin relied on, China’s coal demand could double to 7 billion metric tons by 2030. That will put that country’s coal appetite just below what global demand was in 2012.
Martin’s Coal Wars provides plenty of information and analysis needed for a productive debate on coal’s future. The fact that so many will not seize that opportunity doesn’t diminish the merit of his effort.
Len Boselovic reviewed this book for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.