US depends on coal, too

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Of course, China isn't the only country struggling with a heavy dependence on coal. Coal remains a major part of the energy supply right here in the United States. For some perspective on that we turn to journalist and author, Jeff Goodell. He's a contributing editor at Rolling Stone Magazine, and author of the book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future. Jeff Goodell says that as with China, America's consumption of coal keeps going up.

Jeff Goodell: Well, about half the electricity in America comes from coal. And despite all the issues with coal from mining to air pollution, now global warming, we burn now about a billion tons of coal every year. And that's about 20 pounds per capita per day.

Mullins: Jeff Goodell, we know that in China for every one old coal plant that's being shut down there are two new ones being built. What is the trend here?

Goodell: We're still building new coal plants in America. Since 2002 we've built about 22 new coal plants. Every one of them is a kind of pitched battle to get it through, but we're still building them.

Mullins: So is there political push back on that? I mean I know what you're saying and we heard this in Mary Kay's piece, that coal is cheap; that if you want to remain competitive that you have to use coal? What's the response to that?

Goodell: Well, I think that that's old world way to think about it. You know, the future is about economies and nations who figure out how to use power more intelligently, who are not dependent upon the cheapest kilowatt out there, because as your reports have shown, those kilowatts really aren't cheap. And the what economists call the externalities are huge.

Mullins: How about politically though, Jeff? I mean if you're looking at the political impact of what's happening here in the United States, specifically with the coal industry, how is that affecting Americans? And how broadly is that affecting talks around global climate change?

Goodell: It's huge. I mean first of all, the coal industry is very powerful politically. And the coal industry is essentially what powered the industrial revolution and was hugely important to the American economy throughout the 20th century. And the industry is very deeply connected in Washington politics. So you have this tremendous force of political power that's working on keeping essentially these coal trains running. The regions that are very coal dependent are also very important on the electoral map. So you know, if you want to become elected president in America it's very hard to say anything tough about coal; because you need Pennsylvania and you need Ohio. And it affects global climate in the sense that no American politician is willing to commit to a cut in CO2 emissions because it will hit the coal industry the hardest. And so we are in a certain sense imprisoned by the fact that we have a lot of coal. That is the central fact in keeping us from any kind of global agreement to cut emissions.

Mullins: Jeff Goodell, thank you very much for talking with us. Jeff Goodell is the author of the book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future.