Big Coal

As the fossil fuel that isn’t running out, coal’s been rebranded as a means to achieve energy independence. With the assistance of a friendly administration in the U.S. and burgeoning demand from China and India, the industry looks set to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants in coming years. And despite the gasification/sequestration PR, the momentum is strongly behind old-school plants that laden the air with particulates and the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

Goodell recently visited Grist HQ for a leisurely chat about coal’s past, present, and unsettling future. Here follows a full transcript; for the abridged version, go here.

David Roberts: Was the mining accident at Quecreek [the subject of Goodell’s first book] what led you to the bigger story?

Jeff Goodell: No. It started with the New York Times Magazine. In May 2001, around the same time the Cheney energy plan was being rolled out, my editor at the magazine said, coal’s going to be big. Why don’t you go down to West Virginia and have a look? So I went and wrote a piece for the magazine, “How Coal Got Its Glow Back.” It was about the return of coal, but it was focused on West Virginia and mountaintop-removal mining.

From that I realized there was a bigger story than I could fit into 10,000 words for the Times. After a few months of thinking about it, I decided to do this book. The thing with the Quecreek miners happened after. I had sold the book, was beginning to work on it. All of a sudden, these guys get trapped, and my publisher knows I’m doing this book, and they need a writer for the book. So I decided to do that.

DR: Why is coal having a comeback? The friendly administration doesn’t hurt, but things started before that, right?

JG: Right. We’ve been burning coal for a long time. Coal never really went out of fashion. But in the ’70s, the future was not looking good — you had the environmental movement beginning, the Clean Air Act, and nuclear power ramped up. This is before Three Mile Island. Then, the future was seen as gas and alternatives. Even then, during the energy crisis in the ’70s, people were messing around with solar panels and all that kind of stuff.

Coal was seen even then as inefficient, old, dirty. There may have been one or two coal plants built in America between, say, 1975 and 2001, but I’m not aware of very many. The basic idea was that the plants that were left, from the ’60s and ’70s, were going to rust away, and the bright new future was going to come.

A number of things made it clear that that was not going to happen: the Bush administration, most clearly, but also high gas prices, the fact that renewables weren’t scaling up quickly, and the change of mentality of the electric power industry — an industry that does not embrace change very easily. It’s always the easiest thing to do, to keep doing what you’ve been doing. And coal is what we’ve been doing for a long time.

DR: Coal boosters say we have 250 years worth of coal to burn in this country. You argue that’s misleading. Why do you think that figure is inflated?

JG: It is based on old studies that haven’t been updated since the ’70s. Those studies themselves were based on studies from the ’20s and ’30s.

It’s not mysterious where coal is. It doesn’t pool underground; it doesn’t move around. It’s a sedimentary rock. We pretty much know where the coal is. The problem with that number — 250 years, or 270 billion tons — is that it doesn’t take into account where it is and what it will take in environmental and economic terms to get it out of the ground. Vast coal reserves are buried under towns, under state parks, under forests. We’ve been mining coal for 150 years. We start with the easy stuff, and it gets harder and harder to get out. The coal they’re going after now, even in the Powder River Basin [in Montana and Wyoming] where there’s lots and lots of coal, is getting deeper and deeper. It’s more deeply buried in Appalachia, requires more destructive technologies, like mountaintop-removal mining. Underground mines are going into coal that was considered off-limits before because it was too difficult or dangerous to get at.

DR: Has Wyoming mining taken off just because the coal is easy to get at?

JG: Because it’s easy to get at, and because it’s low-sulfur. A lot of these plants, they don’t want to spend $100 million or so to install a scrubber to meet the Clean Air Act requirements. So instead they switch to low-sulfur Powder Basin coal, which allows them to meet the requirements without putting the scrubbers on. But it is quite a bit lower in BTU than Appalachian coal, so you have to burn more of it — that means CO2 is higher.

DR: You mention Americans’ ignorance about where electricity comes from.

JG: Everyone I talk to can tell me the price of a gallon of gas to the tenth of a cent, but I’ve not found a person — except for one guy at a reading last night who had a solar panel — who could tell me what they pay for a kilowatt of electricity. We’re completely divorced from the price. If you look at electric power bills, you will see they often make it very difficult to know exactly what you’re paying.

A friend of mine has a cartoon — might be an old cartoon from The New Yorker — and this little girl is asked, do you know where electricity comes from? And she points at a power poll saying, “electrici-trees!”

DR: It is mystifying how coal companies retain such a grip on the very people in the country who have suffered most at their hands. How have they kept that grip for so long?

JG: It goes to the very heart of the development of Appalachia. The coal barons came in and bought up the mineral rights for nothing very, very early in development, in the 1850s and 1860s. There’s never been any other economic model there. Coal’s been big daddy there for a long, long time.

Much has been written about the early days, in the 19th and early 20th century, with company towns and the almost indentured servitude the coal industry required. They worked explicitly to keep other industries out in the early days of the coal industry. Although the company stores are gone, that mentality still exists there. There really is no alternative for a lot of people in coal country. You either work for the coal industry or you leave, you suffer total poverty. There’s not a lot of other stuff in there.

It’s complicated, too, because in the geography of Appalachia, it is not easy to build roads. It’s a very closed-off place. It’s not easy to put airports in. Have you ever flown into Charleston, W.Va.? It’s an airport on the shaved-off top of a mountain. It’s a very rough, rugged terrain, and the coal industry is one of the few industries suited to that. I was just there a few weeks ago, and there is a sort of Stockholm syndrome.

DR: Is there a cultural element to it? A little bit of red-state resentment toward blue-state elitism?

JG: There is — and justifiably. “We’re wrecking our mountains; our people are dying for you fat cats to sit around on your butts and surf the internet. You live in a world powered by coal and you don’t see at all the costs of it, but we, here in West Virginia or Kentucky, pay for it with our blood. Who are you to come down here and criticize us?”

There is a big dose of that. And it’s right, actually. We do take it completely for granted. We do burn their blood on that coal. One of the things that attracted me to this book was how much I liked the people in West Virginia. They’re the toughest, strongest, most independent people I’ve ever met. They’re remarkable characters.

I was there a couple weeks ago. It’s volatile there right now. A lot of people have decided enough is enough. People like Judy Bonds, who’s head of Coal River Mountain Watch, a small but high-profile group. She won a Goldman Prize for environmentalism in 2003. She’s an old coal-miner’s wife, eighth generation West Virginian — you don’t want to mess with her.

DR: Is mountaintop-removal mining reaching the point of diminishing returns? Or are there plenty of mountains to go if no one stops it?

JG: They’re going to keep mining as long as they can, but there’s going to be real conflict there, because as I said, the easy stuff is gone. The stuff they’re getting is more and more destructive, closer and closer to communities, so it’s going to engender more and more conflict. It’s a volatile situation.

It’s not mined out, but of all the regions in America where coal production is declining, central Appalachia … That’s why they fight so hard against these mountaintop-removal regulations. If you put any restrictions on it, more and more of it becomes unmineable. They’re being done in by Wyoming, because in Wyoming it’s so easy to get to all this stuff, and the railroads are so good at shuffling it around.

DR: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is about the history of electricity — how coal and electricity were born together, at least electricity as a commodity. The need to sell coal almost drove the development of electricity.

JG: Edison developed the first power plant and the incandescent light bulb. One of the problems with electricity as Edison conceived it was, what do we do with it? How do we sell it? How do we commodify it? They had lights. But there were already lights in America, natural gas lights. There was a whole literature about the fear of electricity, the problems with it. From a business point of view, it was not at all clear what you would do with it.

Interestingly, one of Edison’s backers, JP Morgan, said look, I think we should just build the gadgets, the generators, essentially, and let people put them in their houses. Not be in the business of selling electricity at all — let people do it themselves. Edison was against that, partly for justifiable reasons, because it was a very fragile system, partly because he was a control freak and wanted to control the entire system, and partly because the early generators were big, loud, noisy beasts. He was afraid there would be too much opposition to having them around. JP Morgan pushed it, but in the end Edison won.

It’s interesting to think about what would have happened in Morgan’s vision: We would have had decentralized electricity generation. We would be generating electric power like we generate heat now, with little furnaces in our basements. It would be a whole different paradigm for the industry.

DR: It’s a paradigm that has come back into vogue now with environmentalists.

JG: Totally. There’s no reason that couldn’t have worked. With all these technological forks in the road, there’s all kinds of unanswered questions, but it was a close fight at that time. It’s certainly fun to think about how the world would have been different if Morgan had won the argument.

DR: If everybody had a coal generator in their basement, efforts to make them cleaner and quieter would have proceeded much more quickly.

JG: Absolutely.

DR: Do you think decentralized electricity generation could work today?

JG: Oh yeah. The age of the giant power plant is essentially over. There are people who have ideas about mega mega huge nuclear plants and things like that, but … I grew up in Silicon Valley — I’m a big believer in the micro model. That’s where the future is, because it scales up much more quickly, allows diversity of generation, allows people in the sunny places to have solar, people in windy places to have wind. That paradigm plays in with the whole evolution of a smart transmission grid, net metering, back and forth.

The centralized paradigm of electric power is a legacy of the monopolistic robber baron era. And Samuel Insull and Thomas Edison. We’re seeing a fight by Big Coal and Big Nuclear to keep that paradigm alive. I could be just as wrong as anyone about this, but I think that era is over.

DR: There’s such a legacy of money and political connections.

JG: It’s not gonna change overnight. But it’s hard to see how it gets bigger. We already lose … transmission is so inefficient. To build power plants any bigger is so expensive, and there are so many siting problems, it’s a kind of nightmare. This is not something that’s going to play out in five years, but over the long term. Again, maybe it’s just my Silicon Valley bias, but that seems to be where the creativity and the energy is right now.

DR: The regulatory scheme that was born alongside coal generation created a natural monopoly.

JG: The electric power industry model we have now, the architecture, was designed by Samuel Insull, the apprentice to Thomas Edison and later Chicago power magnate. He understood that the best way to preserve a monopoly was to submit to regulation and set up this quasi-regulatory model of public service commissions and things like that. He knew it would make barriers to entry very high, and being a Chicagoan understood that the regulators could be pretty easily bought off. So it was essentially no regulation at all. And that paradigm has continued. There’s been a whole movement toward electricity restructuring, trying to open markets up, but very powerful players don’t want that to happen. The last thing they want is competition.

This ancient transmission and regulatory infrastructure has become incredibly complex now, even for someone like me who spent three years trying to understand things like participant funding. How do you allow someone else to hook up to the grid? Who has the first right of transmission through particular lines?

The big electric utilities, like American Electric Power and Southern Company, who control some of these grids, do everything they can to make it difficult for smaller generators to set up. I’ve heard many stories about this. I know a guy who had this incredibly great proposal for a wind farm in Tennessee. Everything was set, except he couldn’t get the Southern Company to allow him to hook up to the grid. They invent 20 million reasons why this won’t work or that won’t work. The project died. As long as you have these entities for whom competition is not a good thing, as long as they’re essentially controlling the wires, it’s very difficult.

The average person on the street has no idea where electric power comes from, much less the details and intricacies of this incredibly complex regulatory network. It’s all in the hands of three or four public service commissioners in most states.

DR: Say a public-minded citizen wanted to take up regulatory reform as their issue. Are there a couple of basic regulatory changes you think people should advocate for?

JG: Anything that opens up the grid and opens up the power system to more diverse energy sources, makes it easier and simpler for people to connect. Things like net metering: allowing people to put solar panels on their house and not only generate power for themselves, but when they have excess power, sell it back. A lot of states allow that, but there are a lot of regulations on how much you can sell it back, when you can sell it back — it’s just a million details.

It varies in different states, given whether they’re restructured, open markets or not. A lot of the biggest coal states are still regulated states. In those cases, the best thing people can do is pay attention to their public service commissioners, and the issues, and get involved. I’ve been to the hearings of these commissions and nobody’s there. There’ll be some senior citizens who come roaring in if they try to raise rates a tenth of a cent, but other than that, it happens in a vacuum.

DR: If those commissioners wanted to allow rates that change at peak hours, could they do that now? How much control do they have?

JG: They’re handcuffed by a mandate to provide lowest-cost power. The problem is, how do you define cost? It’s always a problem when you talk about coal, because they’ll say, coal is only three cents a kilowatt and gas is six. But of course coal costs much more if you factor in what’s going in Appalachia, and global warming, and air pollution, and that kind of stuff. So revising this obligation to low-cost service, changing that definition, is really important. It’s a difficult thing to do, but there are a lot of people who are targeting public service commissions now to try to educate and reform and change them, to get these commissioners to understand that there’s more to price than pennies per kilowatt.

DR: When the general public hears deregulation, their mind immediately goes to the California debacle. Do you think that set back the momentum to change?

JG: Oh, absolutely. It was poorly, poorly done. It was a disaster, that and Enron. But California did it wrong. The lesson from California is not that markets don’t work, it’s that badly designed markets don’t work.

It’s an incredibly complex mishmash we have right now, and the new FERC commissioner … it’s not clear what’s going to happen. Pat Wood, the old FERC commissioner, was pro-restructuring and deregulation and a really powerful force in that direction. Right now we’re just in total limbo.

DR: Public perception has it that air quality has improved in terms of soot, in terms of particulate pollution. It’s held up as one of the environmental victories. But you ask some pointed questions about that view.

JG: The coal industry rightly points out that since 1970, emissions from coal plants are down 35 percent, the air in many places in the country is cleaner, and things like acid rain have — there’s some debate about this — been solved. There’s been a lot of progress.

But the industry fought every one of these changes tooth and nail, predicted the end of the economy, said they couldn’t do it, it’ll cost everybody billions of dollars … and they got it done.

According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 people a year still die prematurely from pollution from coal-fired power plants. Clearly there’s still a big problem. I visit places like Masontown, Penn., where you’ve still got these big old coal burners just dumping the stuff out. That’s what the new-source review fight’s about: there’s still these big filthy coal plants that should have had pollution controls on them years ago, still pumping it out. In those communities, there’s still profound health effects.

This whole idea of the air getting cleaner is only true from a 1970s point of view. You look at the things that have been regulated — sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, the two main components of smog — and those are what have gone down. But the things we’re concerned about now … mercury, that’s not going down. Most importantly, carbon dioxide: since 1990, in the U.S., carbon dioxide emissions are up 17 percent. From coal plants, 27 percent.

DR: It’s cliché at this point that the Bush administration is in coal’s pocket. Cite some of the most egregious examples.

JG: A short list would include the appointment of David Lauriski as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and his cutting back on mine safety inspectors, changing the agency from an enforcement agency to a “safety compliance” agency. They’re not mine inspectors anymore, but “compliance assistance officers.” Then [Lauriski] resigns in a scandal over awarding favorable contracts to his buddies.

The rollback of new-source review is an incredibly complex nightmare, but essentially the point is: these big dirty coal plants were meant to have controls on them years ago and don’t, and the administration waged a subtle but effective campaign to undercut the lawsuits against them.

Mercury: studied for years. National Academy of Sciences studied it, EPA decides what they want to do, Bush administration comes in and the whole thing goes into this cap-and-trade idea.

Of course, the big one was the CO2 reversal. That was just shameless. It was so shameless you couldn’t believe it happened.

DR: Most people would pin the campaign of misinformation around global warming on the oil industry. But coal’s had a role to play as well.

JG: Coal has fought against it from the very beginning. The Greening Earth Society is a classic example an astroturf campaign set up to make us think that global warming is good, that it will make the earth more bountiful and the beaches warmer and nicer and everybody’ll have a better suntan. I’ve often wondered how cynical it really is.

It’s clear that the coal industry has always viewed global warming as a game ender. They know — or at least they’ve always believed this, I don’t think it’s true — that if we take global warming seriously, they’re in deep trouble. Mercury, clean air stuff, they can deal with all that. They don’t want to — it’s just a question of money, a question of time. They have long viewed global warming as: they’re out of business. It’s partly a product of their paranoia, partly a product of the fact that they feel beaten up by the environmentalists, and partly ignorance.

When I was in Gillette, Wyo., in 2004 I sat down with the CEO of one of the biggest coal companies in America. We were talking about global warming. I asked him if he talks to his kids about global warming. He said, yeah, I do, I make sure they wear hats when they’re out in the sun. I’m like, what do you mean? And he said, well, the hole in the ozone, I don’t want them to get skin cancer. This is what you’re concerned about?

There’s a profound and willful ignorance on the industry’s part. It’s hurt them. I don’t think global warming is necessarily a game ender for coal, but the fact that they’ve dragged their feet on it so much just makes the challenge all the harder for them.

DR: If you really think it’s a game ender for your industry, is that not impetus to go find out what it is, and whether there’s validity to it? It’s hard to understand how you could grasp the problem and still work to prevent concerted action.

JG: This is a cultural problem. This is an industry that has always been resistant to change. The entrepreneurial era in the electric power and coal industry ended around 1925. It’s been on automatic pilot for about 75 years.

The other thing is, it’s not really their job. This is a political failure, not a business failure. They’re responsible to their shareholders to make as much money as they can within the law. It’s odd to say this, but I feel some sympathy. They’re fighting for what they think is survival.

If we crack down, finally, on carbon dioxide emissions, they will adapt or die. They will do it.

DR: Do you have a compact explanation of coal gasification — why it’s cleaner, why it’s preferable?

JG: Traditionally we’ve burned coal the exact same way: you crush it up, blow it into a big box, light it on fire and boil water, that creates steam, and that’s how you generate electricity. Coal gasification is a completely different technology. It’s more like a chemical refinery. It uses heat and pressure to turn the coal into a kind of synthetic gas, which is then burned in a turbine, similar to natural gas. It’s much cleaner. All the impurities are taken out before it’s even burned. The great virtue of it is, they can be built to use other feed stocks — so a gasification plant can use coal, it can use coke, it could even use energy grasses, biofuels potentially.

DR: They can use these coal waste piles out in Pennsylvania.

JG: Right, there’s lots of this slag. Of course, there’s drawbacks to different feed stocks, and not all have as much energy — coal is the ideal.

The main reason it’s important is not just increased efficiency, lower water consumption, burning as clean as a natural gas plant in traditional air pollutants — the key thing is that it allows you to capture carbon dioxide, which can be used for enhanced oil recovery.

In a traditional plant, you have a rock, and the only way to release the carbon dioxide from it is to burn it. You would have to put a kind of carbon dioxide scrubber on the smokestack. It’s technically possible to get CO2 out of a traditional plant, but it lowers the efficiency of that plant hugely, 30 percent or something.

There’s universal understanding and agreement that gasification is the critical technology for the future. The question is, why hasn’t the industry adopted it?

Partly it hasn’t because no one has made them. No one’s put a gun to their head and said, we’re putting a price on carbon. We’re having a carbon trading regime. Carbon’s going to be $10 a ton. The only thing that’s going move this is price and economics. You can’t expect the coal industry to want to save the world just for fun, or out of good deeds. Without a carbon price and a strong economic signal, [Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC] plants are more expensive.

A handful of them are being built or are on the drawing board now, but out of 120 new coal plants, maybe six are IGCC. I don’t think you’re going to see real uptake until it’s mandated in some way, by some kind of price on carbon, whether it’s a carbon tax or a trading system.

There is this idea that new plants have to use the best new technology available. There’s a lot of debate right now whether coal gasification should be considered the best available technology. Some decisions by public service commissions said yes, we believe that coal gasification is the best available technology now. If there are a number of those decisions they could set a precedent — then you would see the industry have to do it.

DR: How mature is carbon sequestration technology?

JG: Well, it works. There are carbon sequestration projects going on. There’s one at the Weyburn oil field. It’s mostly used in North America right now, in old oil fields where they use the carbon dioxide to push out more oil or gas.

Carbon sequestration is the big question. The whole premise of gasification, and of coal’s role in a world that takes global warming seriously, depends upon being able to bury this stuff. There’s no question that it works on a limited scale, in certain projects. It’s not blue sky science. They do it all the time. It works. The question is where it will work, how much it will cost, how will people feel about living around it, and whether it can be done safely on the scale that needs to be done.

DR: Right, the scale: we’re talking about sequestering all the CO2 from hundreds of coal plants, not just in America but in China. The world is big, but one would think there are limited places where the stuff can go. If there are earthquakes …

JG: The industry is waving it around as this easy-to-do thing, and it’s not. It will work well in certain places, but it won’t in all regions of the country. Southeast, it won’t work, the geology’s not right. New England, the geology’s not right. It’ll work well in places like Illinois and Montana. It makes siting a coal plant much more difficult. It’s already hard to site a coal plant, then you have to find the right geology to sequester — it makes it very difficult. It’s easy to see how a handful of IGCC plants with sequestration will be built, but the idea that we’re going to undertake this massive engineering project in America, hundreds and hundreds of sequestration projects, billions of dollars — that’s a pipe dream.

DR: Do you have thoughts on the nuclear debate?

JG: My problem with nuclear is not so much the waste thing. We need to get over this idea that we need to find ways of generating more power so we can keep consuming more. Nuclear plays into that idea that we can just switch out coal and build nuclear — that we don’t have to think about it anymore.

DR: The same role ethanol plays with gasoline.

JG: Right. And the same role coal plays with gasoline, the idea that we can liquefy coal to replace Middle Eastern oil. It’s a switch-the-box kind of solution.

It also keeps the big corporate powers in play; it keeps this essential structure in the electric power distribution intact — it’s about the big hubs and all that.

DR: And incredibly high barriers to entry.

JG: Right. It keeps it out of your hands; it’s Big Daddy’s answer to our problems. That’s the problem with it. But I also agree with Al Gore: I don’t think it’s going to scale. The cost is so huge, the financial risks are so huge … I think we’ll see a handful of them built. But to scale them up to really deal with the problems, I just cannot imagine happening.

DR: What are the motivations behind the Asia-Pacific pact?

JG: To look like you’re doing something. There’s nothing behind that. It’s all this vague idea of technology transfer. There’s no real money involved. There’s nothing more than a bunch of people sitting around talking. It’s a completely transparent attempt to look like something’s happening, when nothing is happening. I see no evidence of anything serious.

GE’s just going to give them the technology for gasification? I went to China three times for this book, and the plane’s always loaded with coal people going over there. They love selling their second-rate scrubbers to China — they want to transfer a lot of technology, especially the old shit they can’t sell here. They want to dump it on the Chinese.

If you are a company that sells scrubbers to coal plants, and you see what’s going on in China, it’s like a wet dream. You’ve got zillions of coal plants going up over there. You want to transfer your technology as quickly as you can. Cleaner air in China is important, and they should all have scrubbers, but that’s not the real issue.

DR: Do you get a sense in China of the cultural associations of coal?

JG: In America, you can live a long life and never know anything about coal. Over there, it’s everywhere. You trip on it when you get off the airplane. It’s piled up in doorways. It’s a very frank part of life.

But the Chinese have an incredibly practical view of it that we don’t have. They say, yes, we’re building a lot of coal plants, yes, we’re burning a lot of coal, but we have 700 million people in poverty here, and you’re expecting us to pay 12 times the price to put up solar panels everywhere when you guys, the richest nation in the world, won’t do it? They see themselves as taking exactly the path to development we did — and they’re going at it incredibly quickly.

You already see huge environmental problems there. I stood in the desert in northwestern China and watched it move. Desertification is a huge issue there. Water is a profoundly challenging issue. But there’s this great practical-mindedness to things there that doesn’t happen here. They see coal as a tool to help them build a prosperous nation, one they will then get rid of and go on to something else. They see the opportunity for clean, green technology better than we do, because in a way it’s more in their face.

I talked to a lot of people in China about global warming and I never heard any denial. Everyone knows what’s going on. It’s very frank, and it was refreshing in that way. China is actually kind of scary, not in the traditional yellow tiger sense, but in their practical-mindedness.

DR: I’ve heard that about China before, that they’re really clear-eyed. But on the other hand, if they really do build the hundreds of dirty coal plants they’re planning, the game’s up — there’s no way to avoid catastrophic climatic consequences. You don’t want to consign them to poverty, but you don’t want to consign the rest of the world to catastrophe …

JG: I have an 8-year-old daughter. She understands very clearly that if she messes up her room, she needs to clean it up. We, the West, are the ones who have dumped all this shit into the atmosphere that’s causing the problems now. We are the richest nations in the world. The environmental movement shies away from the morality of this. I have friends in the movement who say, “we can’t talk about morality. We can’t tell people what to do.” But I get a little bit tired when people ask me, as they always do: if we’re not going to burn coal, what are we going to do? What are we going replace it with? Is it nuclear? Is it solar? Is it wind?

When I was working on this book as I spent some time looking at slavery debate. During the slavery debate there was all this stuff: oh, you can’t abolish slavery, the farms will collapse, what are you going to replace this labor with, we don’t have people, who’s going to pick our cotton, everything’s going to fall apart. The great thing Lincoln said is, that’s not the issue. The issue is, is it right or is it wrong? You make that decision first and then you decide how to do it. Global warming is reaching that moment.

There’s an incredible literature of southerners, smart southerners, well-intentioned southerners, saying we won’t be able to pick anything. How many people will we have to import? How many northerners will we have to hire to replace ex-slaves? The same kind of one-box-for-the-other you have with coal and wind now.

DR: Once you get in those technical arguments, it’s hard to say: have faith that human beings are smart, they’re clever, they’re adaptable. We’ll figure something out.

JG: One of the things the industry is good at is perpetuating this myth of economic peril. They’ve done that since the moment the Clean Air Act landed on the desk of Richard Nixon in 1970.

DR: If you had to predict, do you think that in 50 years, 100 years, we’ll still be burning coal?

JG: One of the things I learned growing up in Silicon Valley is to never predict the future. I worked at Apple Computer long before the Mac. I was in meetings where they would sit around and say, what are people going to use these for? One of the leading ideas that came out of these meetings was to file kitchen recipes. They couldn’t see it at Apple in 1981.

What it depends upon is the industry itself. If the industry continues to be this empire of denial, if it resists change, if it doesn’t rush to embrace a sustainable path — which means not dangling FutureGen, but building some IGCC plants, really moving forward — it’s got a limited future. If it does move in a creative way, respond to what’s going on now, there is a path to the future for it.

But in the long run, it’s obvious to me, and to everyone, that coal is a very inefficient way of getting energy, even in the best-case scenario. Best-case scenario, it is a bridge to some other breakthrough, some cleaner, greener technology. Solar is the holy grail, and there’s a lot of money flowing into that now. Because what is coal but solar power? Just 300 million-year-old solar power.