Jeff Goodell: Big Coal's Dirty Secrets
Jeff Goodell's book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, now out in paperback, argues that the U.S. is more dependent than ever on coal. Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine; he's also the author of Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith, based on the account of nine miners trapped underground.
Other segments from the episode on June 21, 2007
DATE June 21, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jeff Goodell, author of "Big Coal," on US' ongoing
addiction to coal power and the practices of coal companies
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Many Americans think coal went out with corsets and top hats. But in truth,
the US is more dependent on coal today than ever before. Not to warm our
hearths, but to generate electric power." So writes Jeff Goodell in his book
"Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future." It recently came
out in paperback.
Coal can help make us less dependent on Middle East oil, but it comes with a
price: gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Goodell writes all
about coal and the coal lobby, including how the industry helped George W.
Bush win the 2000 election. The Senate has been debating the energy bill, and
this week it rejected two proposals that would have expanded the production of
liquid fuel made from coal, but this week the coal industry also got a boost
from the Senate Finance Committee, which approved $28 billion in tax breaks to
underwrite renewable fuels and clean coal technology.
Jeff Goodell, welcome to FRESH AIR. As you point out, coal seems like the
fuel that powered the industrial revolution, not the era of the Internet
revolution. Yet you say the rise of the Internet has an increased the coal
industry's power and influence. How?
Mr. JEFF GOODELL: Well, you know, one of the big trends that's happening in
energy in America is the increasing dependence upon electricity for a lot of
things. We all know that through our use of, you know, cell phones and our
e-mail and the Internet and the radio and television, and so electricity is
becoming more and more central to how our economy runs. And along with that
goes the question of where you get that electricity from. And in America,
most people don't know it, but half the electricity comes from burning coal.
GROSS: About how much coal do we burn a year for electricity?
Mr. GOODELL: A little over a billion tons, works out to about 20 pounds per
person per day for every man, woman and child in America.
GROSS: You describe America as the Saudi Arabia of coal. What do you mean?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, we have tremendous reserves of coal in America. We're
used to thinking of Saudi Arabia and the political power and economic power
that comes with their large oil reserves. And actually that phrase is a
phrase that the coal industry likes to use, because it suggests the kind of
economic power and size of the reserves that we have in America. The United
States does have more coal than any other nation.
GROSS: Now, the coal industry wants to head in the direction of coal to
liquid fuel so that coal could be used, for instance, to power automobiles.
Tell us more about what coal to liquid fuel is.
Mr. GOODELL: Well, it's a very old technology that was actually pioneered by
the Nazis during World War II when Hitler was running out of easy access to
oil, and some of his engineers figured out a way to turn coal into diesel
fuel. And that technology has kind of languished ever since, partly because
oil has been so cheap. It's been commercialized and used a little bit in
countries like South Africa, where they've had difficulty, because of the
embargoes and things, getting oil. But now that oil is getting expensive and
we're looking for replacements for oil, and energy independence has become
such a kind of political slogan, there's a lot of renewed interest now in
trying to displace some foreign oil with domestic coal.
GROSS: So the advantages of coal to liquid fuel is it would decrease our
dependence on oil from the Middle East. Does it work as well?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, first of all, that's the theory, that it would decrease,
you know, our dependence on oil from the Middle East. One of the big problems
with this idea is it's very expensive, very difficult to scale up. And the
other thing is that--and it's very important to make this clear, that we can't
make gasoline out of coal. We can make diesel fuel, which is not quite
obviously the same thing. But there are a lot of problems with going along
with this coal to liquid program, not the least that it's very expensive and
that if we want to take global warming seriously and doing something about
cutting carbon dioxide emissions, this coal to liquid is a real disaster
because it's essentially double the amount of carbon dioxide as using
GROSS: So even if this coal to liquid fuel did succeed in reducing our
dependence on oil from the Middle East, it would increase our problem with
Mr. GOODELL: Yes. And not only that, it would also increase the problem of
the, you know, devastation that's happening in Appalachia from these enormous
mountaintop removal mines that are really kind of leveling large swaths of
southern Appalachia. And if we're going to boost up our coal consumption in
America, we can essentially write off that region of the country as a sort of
GROSS: Both the House and the Senate are looking at energy bills, and this
week in the Senate two amendments about coal to liquid fuel were voted down.
Just tell us briefly what those amendments were.
Mr. GOODELL: Well, one of the amendments tried to provide about $10 billion
in various subsidies and loan guarantees to get some of these plants built, as
well as guarantee a billion gallons or so of purchase each year of these coal
to liquid fuels by the military. The military is interested in these fuels
because they see it as a sort of backup in case of they have trouble with, you
know, imported oil and scarcity of oil. So that was one amendment.
The other amendment was a similar one, except that it didn't have the military
subsidies and it called for a burying and sequestering of the carbon dioxide
of these coals plants. It essentially said, `If you want to build these
plants, you have to figure out a way to deal with the carbon dioxide that's
coming out of them so we don't accelerate the already accelerating problem of
GROSS: Why were these two amendments voted down?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, you know, environmental organizations, first of all, went
on the war path about it precisely because of the carbon dioxide emission
problem, and also because these plants are very water--consume a lot of water,
so about four barrels of water for every barrel of liquid fuel. And
especially in places like the West, in Montana and Wyoming where they're very
interested in this technology, that's a really bad deal. So the
environmentalists really, really went after it and so did a lot of Democrats
who are not in big coal states. And so I think for the environmental
movement, there was a real line in the sand drawn on this.
GROSS: So what does this mean about the future of coal to liquid fuel?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, that's hard to say. I think the--Washington is under,
you know, tremendous political pressure to do something about gas prices, to
pretend that at least for as long as possible, if oil prices are to go up
there are easy substitutes. You're seeing pressure on all kinds of so-called
alternative fuels, you know, the tar sands in Canada and renewed interest in
shale in the Rocky Mountains. So the political pressure for, you know, to do
something about gas prices sort of trumps the political will to do something
about global warming. So I think it's just going to rise again.
GROSS: How is the coal industry promoting coal to liquid fuel?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, they're saying, you know, `Don't worry about--we don't
have to deal with Iraq. We have all this coal in America.' Senator Byrd, I
think, the other day, you know, on the Senate floor said we have these
diamonds beneath our feet. And they're basically promoting it as a
no-brainer. You know, `Why don't we just do this? We have the technology to
do it and we have the coal, and so let's get on with it.' And for them it's a
big boost because they are very concerned about the future of their industry.
Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel. It's really not compatible with a
world that takes global warming seriously. Even though there are a lot of
coal-burning electric power plants planned, it's harder and harder to permit
them. And they really want to get into America's gas tank, and this is the
way to do it.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Goodell, author of the book "Big Coal." He's also a
contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New
York Times magazine.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Goodell. He's the author
of the book "Big Coal," which recently came out in paperback. And he is a
contributing editor to Rolling Stone, and a frequent contributor to the New
York Times magazine.
How would you describe the coal lobby?
Mr. GOODELL: Big and powerful. I mean, what's interesting about the coal
lobby is, first of all, as most people know, we've been burning coal in
America for 150 years, so it's been around a long time. So there's a lot of
history that goes back between the political connections, between the industry
The second thing that's important to note is that it's not just the coal
mining companies and the West Virginia and the places that people who know
about coal, you know, kind of associate with it immediately. It's also the
coal burning electric power plants and electric power companies who are very
political and influential. And, of course, no politician wants to deal with
the idea of a blackout or anything like that, and so they don't want to mess
with these companies.
And third and a very important sort of wedge in this is the railroads. The
railroads, especially the big Western railroads like Union Pacific and
Burlington Northern, make a very large percent of their profits by hauling
coal from Wyoming, which is now the sort of boom town for coal in America,
across to the East to the Mississippi River Valley and beyond. And they
really, really want to keep this coal thing happening as long as they can.
And they're, of course, America's original monopoly, and they've got a lot of
power there, too.
So when you combine these three elements, it's a very formidable force.
GROSS: Has the coal industry had connections to the Bush administration?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, I think that's, yeah, quite clear. I think that there's
volumous records about that. Companies like Peabody Energy were a very large
contributor to the Republican Party and to the Bush administration.
GROSS: They're the largest coal company in America?
Mr. GOODELL: They are. They're the largest coal company in America. I
think they may, in fact, be the largest coal company in the world now.
They've been expanding radically.
You know, we have a vice president who is from Wyoming, which is rapidly
becoming, you know, the epicenter for the coal industry in America. And so
he's, you know, very connected with this industry. And you have large
Southeastern utilities like the Southern Company, who are notoriously well
connected with the administration, large political donors, and have had a big
influence on the administration from the very beginning.
And in addition, you know, it was very clear in 2000, after the 2000
presidential election, President Bush made it very explicit that he credited
West Virginia, which had not gone Republican in, I don't know, more than 20
years, which went Republican in the 2000 race largely because of the coal
industry getting the miners and things to work hard for his campaign. He
credited West Virginia with giving him the race. And so he had a real debt to
GROSS: Now, you write in your book that the coal industry very much wanted to
defeat Al Gore because of Gore's emphasis on global warming.
Mr. GOODELL: To be quite blunt about it, Gore is the embodiment of evil to
them. I mean, there's no one on the planet that they would fight harder to
keep out of office than Al Gore. Because, of course, Al Gore has been talking
seriously about global warming for a long time, and anyone who talks seriously
about global warming is no friend of coal.
GROSS: If the coal industry helped the Bush-Cheney team get elected, did they
return the favor?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, I think they did. I think you saw a number of regulatory
reversals and other things that have been well chronicled in the media. I
mean, the clearest one was in 2000, candidate Bush made a pledge that, if
elected, he would put restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon
dioxide emissions. That was something that he said in order to kind of help
get some of the suburban and environmental vote away from Gore. Then six
weeks after he was elected, he basically said, `Oh, well, that was just a
campaign promise. That's not really going to happen.' And that was the first
in a long line of things.
There was another infamous fight over old dirty coal plants and whether they
should be allowed to update them and modernize them without putting new
pollution controls on them. And the industry got its way on that. There was
rollbacks on regulations on large scale mountaintop removal mining in West
Virginia that allowed these big mines to fill in large creeks and do a lot of
environmental damage that they were not allowed to do earlier.
So I think it's really hard for me to think of any initiative that's come down
in the seven years or so of the Bush administration that coal hasn't liked.
GROSS: What role did the coal industry play in Vice President Cheney's energy
policy group that met early in the first part of the Bush administration and
was very secretive? They were very secretive about even who was in the group.
Mr. GOODELL: Yeah. I mean, that, you know, a question that, you know, I
think history is going to have to answer. I looked into that a lot and, you
know, it's not been a lot that's been able to come out about that. And it's
clear that some of the big coal companies like Peabody were part of the task
force. But, you know, exactly what role they played and how that program was
laid out and the forces that went into shaping it is something that a lot of
journalists have been trying to look at, and really no one's got a good answer
to. But it as pretty clear in the task force recommendations. I mean, a big
endorsement of burning and mining more fossil fuels, especially coal.
GROSS: The president and the vice president have worked in the oil industry,
so we think of them as being, you know, as oil men. So it's almost surprising
to me to hear that they're connected to the coal industry because I see coal
and oil as being competitive. Could you discuss that a little bit?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, that's true, but the interesting thing is that coal and
oil really are not competitive. They are separate, which most people don't
understand. They, you know, coal is basically used exclusively right now in
America to generate electricity. And oil is used for a variety of purposes,
mostly of course transportation and filling up our cars with, you know, to
make the gas we fill up our cars with. But there's really no overlap. We
don't use oil for electricity generation unless this coal to liquids program
gets going. We don't use coal in our gas tanks. So they are separate fuel
sources. And they don't really compete much in America.
And I think that it's true that the administration, you know, does come out of
the oil industry, but there's a lot of camaraderie in the fossil fuel industry
altogether. And one of the, you know, themes that unites them is the idea
that, you know, if we need more energy, what we do is we dig more or drill
more or find more, and we keep burning, and we don't inhibit, you know, do
anything to inhibit consumption, and we don't try to say anything to Americans
that they might have to change their lives because electricity and gas and oil
prices are rising.
GROSS: Now, we've talked a little bit about Bush administration connections
to the coal industry; what about Democrats who are connected to the coal
Mr. GOODELL: Well, I mean, you know, there's certainly plenty of those,
also. I mean, the political influence of coal, although it does split on
party lines to some degree, it's also quite regional. I mean, you know,
there's no bigger booster of coal than Senator Byrd from West Virginia. And
he's been very articulate about what coal has done for--or what he says coal
has done for West Virginia. And he has, you know, as I mentioned earlier, has
played a role in this coal to liquids debate.
So you basically see, you know, politicians who are from coal states boosting
coal. It's very hard to get away from it. I think that's one of the real
things to watch, and a real challenge right now for Barack Obama as he runs
because he's been playing both sides of this, supporting limits on greenhouse
gas emissions and then at the same time promoting coal to liquids, which are
really contradictory goals, contradictory policies, although he has backed off
his endorsement of coal to liquids lately.
But it's really tricky because if you want to get elected to a national office
in America, it's very hard to go against coal because you think of the big
states that are important on election night and, you know, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
West Virginia, Illinois, all these states, these states that are the swing
states in the national elections are all big coal states, and so you get a lot
of people playing nice to coal.
GROSS: Now, I hadn't--until reading your book, I really hadn't thought of
Wyoming as a big coal state, but you say Wyoming now describes itself as the
energy capital because it has so much coal. What kind of coal is it? What
makes Wyoming different from other coal states?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, there's a number of things. The first and most important
one is that, unlike in West Virginia and Appalachia, where the coal is, you
know, basically under mountains, where they have to either--historically where
they either tunnelled for it in seams of coal that are six or seven feet
thick, in Wyoming you have these enormous coal beds that are 60 to 70 feet
thick and just below the surface a couple of hundred feet, if that, below the
surface. And it kind of stretches out like this giant, you know, layer cake
under the prairie.
And it's a real different operation than it is in Appalachia because, unlike
in Appalachia where, when they do these big strip mining and things, you have,
you know, towns that are buried and people that are impacted and flooding and
all kinds of problems, not to mention the destruction of these ancient forests
there, in Wyoming, you basically have prairie and, you know, I spent a lot of
time out there, and, you know, there's nobody living there and, you know, it's
really hard to have any of those sort of environmental problems. There aren't
any, really. I mean, there are problems with water and a few things, but
really it's minor.
And so it's very cheap to get out of the ground because of this. It also has
a lower sulphur content in it. Sulphur is what causes sulphur dioxide
pollution, one of the main pollutants that causes acid rain and smog. And so
electric power companies like this Wyoming coal because it's cheap and because
they can burn it instead of spending $100 million on a scrubber to put on
their power plant to take the sulphur dioxide out. They can just burn Wyoming
coal and it will allow them to meet the federal air requirements for those
Unfortunately, the real problem with Wyoming coal is it has a lower heat
content, so that means that you have to burn more of it to get the same amount
of--to generate the same amount of electricity, which means more carbon
dioxide emissions, which means more greenhouse gases and more global warming.
GROSS: Jeff Goodell is the author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind
America's Energy Future." It recently came out in paperback. He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jeff Goodell, the author
of the book "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future."
Goodell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor
to the New York Times magazine. When we left off, we were talking about how
Wyoming has become a big coal state.
So what impact has this growing popularity of Wyoming coal had on, for
instance, other coal states like in Appalachia?
Mr. GOODELL: It's been devastating for them. I mean, one of the reasons why
Senator Byrd and others, West Virginia and Appalachian politicians are pushing
so hard for this coal to liquid is because they're really seeing a decline in
production in Appalachia. You know, they've been mining coal there for 130
years or more, and all of the simple, easy-to-get coal is gone. And the coal
that's left is more difficult to get, thinner seams and more expensive, and
especially when you're competing with this coal that you can basically dig out
with a spoon in Wyoming, Appalachia is really in a tough spot. And so you
have them moving to these huge, large scale mountaintop removal strip mines
that, you know, blow off the tops of mountains simply because it's the only
way they can compete with Wyoming. Otherwise, you know, it's just too
GROSS: What are some of the differences between like the newer coal plants
and the older ones? Are the newer ones cleaner? Have we made a lot of
progress on that front?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, I mean, I hesitate to even use the phrase "clean coal"
because it's a phrase that gets batted around a lot and it really is one of
those focus group phrases that, you know, like "fat-free doughnuts" or
something, that really is--doesn't mean much. But it certainly is true that a
new coal plant built today is much cleaner when you look at traditional
pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are the two main
causes of smog and the two things that we were really concerned about in the
'70s. And they've made real progress, cutting emissions 60, 70 percent on new
coal plants. The problem is that the thing we really care about today, which
is carbon dioxide emissions, they've made--there's no progress and there's not
a lot of hope for any progress in the near future. And so if you judge it
from a 1970s point of view, yes, they're cleaner. If you judge it from what
we care about today, you know, it's no different.
GROSS: Well, what about mercury? How much mercury is released from coal
Mr. GOODELL: Well, they're certainly the number one emitter of mercury into
the environment in the world. The US plants emit about 48 tons of mercury a
year, and that gets dropped often around the coal plant itself. About a third
of that mercury falls within the vicinity of the coal plants. So you get
these hot spots around the coal plants. And it varies tremendously depending
on the region of the country, the amount of water that's around. The mercury
gets into water and is transformed into methyl mercury, and then is
eaten--taken up by the fish and builds up in the fish, and that's why we have
fish consumption warnings in just about every state in the country now because
of this mercury from coal plants.
GROSS: You write that the coal industry has waged a campaign to downplay the
effects of mercury from coal power plants.
Mr. GOODELL: Yeah, I mean, they, you know, they--it's the same kind of--it's
essentially the same campaign that they waged in the '70s on other pollutants
too, you know, to say first that, you know, `It's not our coal plants. It's
the coal plants from China or something like that that's bringing the
mercury.' And then the second argument is always, `Well, OK, yeah, there's
mercury coming out, but it's too hard and too expensive to get it out so, you
know, you really can't pass any tough regulations on it because we just don't
know how to get it out of the stack.' But now that mercury regulations have
been passed, they do know how to do it, and new power plants are going to be
much better at that than the older ones.
GROSS: You write that health researchers are focusing now on small particles
known an ultra fines that are released by burning coal. What have they
learned about these ultra fine?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, see this is really a fascinating thing because,
initially, when they started looking at air pollution, you know, there was all
this stuff coming out of the stacks and these big pieces of soot and it was
raining down on everybody and, you know, the classic kind of images of
pollution that people probably have seen and, you know, pictures of London or
maybe lived through in Pennsylvania and other places that were really heavily
polluted. So they started cleaning up the plants, and they started cleaning
up the large particles of soot and of this particulate matter. And that was
seen to be a good thing. And that was progress and everybody was happy about
The researchers are now seeing that the removal of these larger particles has
had the perverse effect of increasing these tiny nanoparticles because the big
particles used to act like velcro globs for these smaller particles, these
nanoparticles, to glom onto. So you have these nanoparticles that are
floating around, and because coal has lots of stuff in it besides just carbon,
like mercury and arsenic and a lot of other stuff, when it burns those heavy
metals essentially melt and glom onto these little particles. And these
little particles are so small that they defeat all of your body's natural
defenses against particle matter. If you try to breathe in a big hunk of
soot, it gets blocked in your nose or somewhere in your throat or in your
lungs and it doesn't get absorbed into your blood stream. These nanoparticles
are so small that they defeat all these natural defenses your body has and
they go essentially right into your blood stream.
And so they're now really looking into the fact that these nanoparticles are
essentially carriers for these heavy metals that they know are toxic and are,
you know, transporting them into our bodies. There are researchers looking
into the impacts on our brains and other things. And this is really still
new, really cutting-edge stuff.
GROSS: So these nanoparticles, which you say are about the size of a
microorganism like a bacterium, that they import with them heavy metal?
Mr. GOODELL: Yes. I mean, they're much smaller than actually bacterium,
even. But, yes, they do carry heavy metals with them. As I said, they sort
of melt in the combustion process and then they glom on to these little
particles similar to the way clouds are formed by water droplets glomming on
to little particulate matter and causing, you know, essentially a raindrop or
cloud nucleus. The same kind of principle happening on these nanoparticles.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Goodell, author of the book "Big Coal." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Goodell. He's the author
of the book "Big Coal," which has recently been published in paperback.
Now, as part of your research for this book, you visited coal mines in the
United States, and you also went to China. On your visits to mines in the
United States, you wrote, "I felt like I had stumbled into the gritty
underbelly of modern life, the dark, dirty place where the real work is done
and the real deals are cut." Tell us about some of the things you saw in coal
mining territory that took you by surprise.
Mr. GOODELL: Well, the first thing that took me by surprise was, you know,
simply the fact that this is how we generate electricity at all. I mean, I
grew up in Silicon Valley and was used to celebrating the wonders of electrons
and never thought about where they came from. And then I, you know, started
exploring this sort of underworld and was just, you know, simply shocked by
the fact that we burn rocks, essentially, the same way we've been doing for
150 years to generate all this electricity.
But, you know, when I got--I really, one of the most profound and still kind
of haunting part of the research I did for this book was going into these
mines with these coal miners--and I need to make it very clear that my
criticisms of the coal industry have nothing to do with the people who work in
the mines and at the power plants and things. These are amazing men. And
being down in a mine is like nothing I've ever done before. The kind of
camaraderie that's built up down there and, you know, a lot of guys--and it's
mostly men who work in these mines, at least the underground mines, a lot of
them hate the work and they do it because they don't want to, you know, stock
yo-yos at Wal-Mart, which is, in many parts of coal country, the only real
options. And they don't like the danger and the hard work. But there are a
lot of them who really love it and have coal mining in their blood.
And I went down in there, underground, with a number of these guys, and
they're just the most extraordinary men. And they can hear a creak in the
ground and tell you if, you know, what that means. And one of them described
it to me as every day going underground and wrestling with Mother Nature. And
for him it was just a total thrill every day. And so I developed profound
respect for these men who are down there, you know, laboring in the darkness
so that we can carry around our iPods.
GROSS: You mention iPods. What's the connection between coal and an iPod?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, because, you know, the iPod, you know, they're just a
symbol of this sort of high tech economy that runs on electrons. And where do
those electrons come from? They come essentially from burning coal. And so
we don't think about it, but there's a direct link. Without coal there is no
iPod. There is no iTunes. There is no Apple. There is no iPhone. There is
GROSS: When you mentioned iPhone, like iPods for instance, you mean about
like charging them.
Mr. GOODELL: Right.
GROSS: Like we have to charge them before we can be wireless.
Mr. GOODELL: Right. Right. Right. Right.
GROSS: OK. OK. Tell us a little about what you saw when you actually went
down in a coal mine.
Mr. GOODELL: Well, when I went down into a coal mine, you see darkness. You
see men sweating. You hear, you know, the loud noise of machinery. It is
unlike any other experience I've ever had, just the absolute darkness, the
absolute sense that you are--I mean, it's kind of a cliche to compare it to,
you know, this sort of hell-like, you know, place, this underworld. But it
really is, you know, I mean, you know, I mean, you know, you can't help
thinking about things like that. Just the blackness of the faces.
But what I really, really felt was the human bond of the people who are
working under there. It was really profound. And it is extraordinarily
dangerous, and these men take incredible care of each other, and the kind of
things they do under there and the dangers they put themselves in in order to
get a ton of coal out of the ground are just mind boggling. And so every time
I came out of a coal mine I just, you know, was just full of respect for these
guys. And it was really a profound experience for me.
GROSS: Now, you went to China...
Mr. GOODELL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...to look at coal there, and you found like visible chunks of coal
all over the place. Tell us what you saw.
Mr. GOODELL: Well, that was--it was really stunning to me because, you know,
in America it's easy to go through your life without knowing that we burn any
coal at all. It's burned in, you know, big power plants that are usually a
long way from population centers and is brought in to our--the electricity is
brought into our houses by wire. And basically you can, you know, easily live
your life and never see a chunk of coal in America.
As soon as you step off the plane in China, it is everywhere. You know, the
soot is coming out of the sky. It's stacked up in bricks behind people's
houses. The power plants are still in the middle of town in Beijing, although
they're beginning to move them out now because of the upcoming Olympics. But,
you know, you still have what they call these sort of central heating
districts where they'll have one modest sized power plant and heating plant
for, you know, a couple of apartment buildings. So you had this brick
smokestack in the middle of this neighborhood with, you know, this sooty smoke
pouring out of it. And you have people walking around with handkerchiefs over
their faces so they don't breathe the soot.
And as shocking and everything as all that is, I found it kind of refreshing
in the sense that there was no secret about it. There was no one denied--no
one trying to pretend that coal was clean, and no one tried to pretend that
this wasn't what's powering the Chinese economy. Unlike in America where, you
know, it really is kind of a secret.
GROSS: Are health problems as a result of coal more visible in China?
Mr. GOODELL: Oh, yeah. I mean, especially when they--because they still
burn coal, you know, in their homes for cooking and for heating. And
especially in the poor sections of China. I went to the far west of China to
this sort of Silk Road area where it's one of the poorest parts of--regions in
China. I mean, you know, that's the most deadly for air pollution,
particularly air pollution. So, you know, I think that the World Health
Organization estimates over 300,000 people a year dying from outdoor
particulate air pollution, which is essentially coal. And then you have the
deaths in the coal mines. I mean, the coal mining in China is still a very
kind of backyard operation, very little regulation. The official numbers are
6,000 people a year dying in the mines, but the unofficial numbers are twice
GROSS: Now, you say that the coal industry in the United States is facing a
demographic nightmare. What's the nightmare?
Mr. GOODELL: The nightmare is that coal miners are getting old. And, you
know, I think the average age of a coal miner in America today is, you know,
mid-50s. And no one has gone into the coal industry for a generation. You
know, young people don't want to go underground. They don't want to get dirty
that way. It's every coal miner I know, and this is not--this is without
exception--every coal miner I've talked to has said to me, `My kid is not--I'm
doing this, but my child, my kid is not doing this. I don't care if he works
at a prison. I don't care if he, you know, goes into the military. I don't
care--you know, whatever. He is not working in a coal mine.' So you have this
kind of generational, you know, sort of laying down of the law coming down,
And so it's a real challenge because if you really are going to ramp up coal,
then, you know, you're going to basically have to pay people a lot more to
bring them in. And in parts of Appalachia there's even been talk about
bringing in miners from China or from South America, which has caused a real
firestorm even when the topic is brought up in the most quiet way.
GROSS: Why has that caused a firestorm?
Mr. GOODELL: Well, because it's, you know, it's seen as taking jobs, you
know. One of coals great selling points is that it's, you know, the
all-American fuel, you know, you know, it's mined here in America by proud
American coal miners. And it's our native rock and that. And when you have
the idea of bringing in cheap immigrant labor to do this work, it really
causes a lot of tension in Appalachia, where they, you know--these jobs are,
especially if they're going to start paying more, you know, people will take
GROSS: How has the research you've done for your coal book affected how you
personally consume energy? Has it made a difference?
Mr. GOODELL: Yes. And I think one of the reasons I wrote this book was
because out of this sort of shock, you know. Because I'd gone through, you
know, the first 40 years of my life, or 38 years of my life, you know, never
thinking about any of this. And then to go down to West Virginia and begin to
look into this and see where all this came from, it really rocked me. And so
now, you know, I can't walk my dog in my neighborhood and see a spotlight on a
tree outside without thinking about coal.
You know, I've done all of the things that we all do, or the people who are
conscious of this are doing now, like changing your light bulbs from
incandescents to compact fluorescents, and buying Energy Star appliances.
But, you know, what I bump up against and what many people bump up against is
there's only, you know, so much that you personally can do. And it really
needs large government action to really deal with this. Because I can buy,
you know, green power, but if they're still building coal plants in Wyoming
and things, it's not going to solve the problem of global warming unless we
have not only a national policies, but a global policy on it.
GROSS: Well, Jeff Goodell, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GOODELL: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Jeff Goodell is the author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind
America's Energy Future." It recently came out in paperback.
Coming up, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," "For a Fistful of Dollars," plus
two more Sergio Leone movies and lots of extras. Jon Powers reviews an
eight-DVD Leone box set. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Jon Powers on an eight-DVD box set of Sergio Leone films
TERRY GROSS, host:
The late Italian film director Sergio Leone is best known for his westerns,
and is one of the most influential modern filmmakers, inspiring everybody from
Martin Scorsese to John Woo. Quentin Tarantino called Leone's film "The Good,
The Bad and The Ugly" the best-directed movie of all time. It's included in a
new eight-disc DVD set "The Sergio Leone Anthology." It contains four feature
films and a huge array of extras about Leone's career. Our critic at large,
Jon Powers, says it's well worth having. And he admits his perceptions of
Leone have changed over the years.
JON POWERS reporting:
When I was growing up, we were constantly going to drive-in movies. I saw
scores of things there from "Hercules" epics with Steve Reeves to Michael
Angelo Antonioni's "Blow Up," which wasn't exactly made to be watched in a
car. Looking back I realized that my most thrilling moments of the drive-in
came from the three so-called spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood an
international star. "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More" and
especially "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Here the movies bold enough to
hold their own against squawky speakers, honking wiseacres, and the starry
All three were made by Sergio Leone and have been brought together in "The
Sergio Leon Anthology." This indispensable set features not only beautifully
restored versions of these movies, but a full length version of a terrific one
called "Duck, You Sucker" that played here in butchered form.
The dullest of the four is "A Fistful of Dollars" from 1964. And it just
happens to be a land mine. Not only did it define Eastwood's persona, the
impassively ruthless man with no name who comes decked out in a poncho and
surgically-implanted cheroot, it took popular film making to a then-scandalous
new level of violence and moral darkness. Just as the movie didn't look like
a usual western, it was shot in sun-blasted southern Italy. it didn't feel
like one either. Here was a western for an era that no longer took the old
codes for granted. The good guys weren't, well, good.
Although its sequel "For a Few Dollars More" was clearly a much better film, I
still remember being startled by the artistic leap of "The Good, the Bad, and
the Ugly," the first of Leone's great films. This three-hour epic of greed,
set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, is filled with amazing
things: dazzling set pieces, Eli Wallach's hilarious yammering as "The Ugly,"
and a scene by Ennio Morricone that has become iconic.
(Soundbite of music from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly")
Mr. POWERS: It also exudes a powerful sense of waste in all the film's
killing. That same humanity shines through "Duck, You Sucker," an ambivalent,
hugely pleasurable tale of the Mexican revolution centering on the unexpected
friendship between two very different men. Juan is a wholly self-interested
Mexican bandito played by Rod Steiger, whose performance is a flamboyant
hybrid of a bemused Marlon Brando and Al Pacino doing "Scarface." John is an
idealistic Irish revolutionary played by that cool lizard James Coburn, he of
the long leathery face and teeth the length of piano keys. Here John, tries
to enlist Juan into serving the revolution.
(Soundbite of "Duck, You Sucker")
Mr. ROD STEIGER: (As Juan) What's that?
Mr. JAMES COBURN: (As John) It's a map. It's your country you're lying all
Mr. STEIGER: (As Juan) Not my country. My country is me and my family.
Mr. COBURN: (As John) Well, your country's also Huerta and the governor and
the landlords and Gunther Ruiz and these locusts. And this little revolution
we're having here.
Mr. STEIGER: (As Juan) Revolution? What do you mean, "revolution"? Please
don't try to tell me about revolution. I know all about the revolutions and
how they start. The people that read the books, they go to the people that
don't read the books, the poor people and say, `Ha, ha, the time has come for
have a change, huh?' Sh! (Word censored by station)...shush!
I know what I'm talking about when I talk about the revolution! The people
who read the books...(unintelligible)...people who can't read the books, the
poor people and say `We have to have a change,' so the poor people make the
change, huh? And the people who read the books, they all sit around their big
polished tables and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat. But
what happens to the poor people?
Unidentified Actor: (In character) Colonel...
Mr. STEIGER: (As Juan) They're dead! That's your revolution.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. POWERS: Forty years ago Leone was reckoned obviously inferior to such
Italian giants as Fellini, Antonioni, and Bertolucci. Next to them he was the
man with no name. But his reputation has grown since then, partly thanks to
two brilliant films not collected here. "Once Upon a Time in The West," and
"Once Upon a Time in America." But Leone's ascent is also separate from the
fact that his movies have aged extremely well. His work feels timeless. It
doesn't so much take place in the actual West as in a foreign director's
revery on images and ideas of the West that Leone got from old movies. He
mythologizes something that was already mythic. He turns it operatic. His
westerns really are horse operas, with oversized characters, hyperbolic
showdowns and the cinematic equivalent of bravura arias like the great set
piece in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" when Eastwood first turns Wallach
into the sheriff for the bounty then shots the hangman's rope to let him
This mythic quality is amplified by Leone's trademark style, those indelible
widescreen shots of landscapes, water drips and especially faces, those "beeg
eyes," as they were known, that filled the whole screen. His images explode.
They have a pop art vividness. And they come accompanied by Morricone's
exhilarating music, which ranges from the witty to the achingly nostalgic.
You see, for all his story telling panache, Leone was also a poet of loss, of
the vanished past.
No doubt my own nostalgia helps explain why I like these particular movies so
very much. Yet seeing them again on DVD, I was reminded just how enjoyable
they actually are, and how revealing about how our perceptions change.
Watching them order from "A Fistful of Dollars" to "Duck, You Sucker," you get
a road map of the filmmaker's growth. You watch Leone get better, sharper,
deeper, more complicated. And you realize that once upon a time in Italy, a
guy who started making things labeled spaghetti westerns was actually on his
way to creating art.
GROSS: Jon Powers is the film critic for Vogue Magazine. He reviewed "The
Sergio Leone Anthology."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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