Richard Martin’s book about coal

Richard Martin’s new book, “Coal Wars,” looks like a lively read and with a good Colorado hook

by Allen Best

Richard Martin, who works for energy consultant Navigant as the firm’s only writer, has a new book out called “Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet.” It looks to be a dandy read.

Coal WarsOn Tuesday evening, Martin previewed the book before a crowd of about 15 at Tattered Cover’s location on East Colfax in Denver. Telling us that it seemed silly to stand before such a small crowd, he remained seated as he explained that his book is not one about “policy advocacy or environmentalism or any other ism. It’s a book about people.”

Then he proceeded to provide a brief tour of several locations around the world, starting with Harlan County, Kentucky. The picture he painted was not of a nice place, a prosperous place, or a healthy place. “It’s easier for Mitch McConnell to stand on the floor of the Senate and rail about the war on coal,” he said. It’s much different to live in these communities.”

In Colorado, he talked about the Twentymile Mine coal mine south of Steamboat Springs but also of the dependence on coal in Craig, located 42 miles west of Steamboat. These three coal burners and the Trapper Mine collectively produce two-thirds of the revenues in Moffat County.

What do you do with places like Craig? People convinced that coal must be replaced as a fuel source because of the carbon dioxide emissions have been asking that question for several years. Martin said he sees no “silver bullet.”

Craig plants downsized

The Craig Station power plants, coupled with the nearby Trapper Mine, provide most of the paychecks in Craig and most of the property tax base in Moffat County. Photo/Allen Best

But he did offer that he spent time with the mayor of Craig, a 30-year veteran of the coal sector there—and the mayor is accepting that there will be change. Somehow, places like Craig need to be helped, and Martin described it as a “moral obligation, but a practical one as well.”

At the same time, this does not necessarily mean propping up Craig and Moffat County. In times past, people have had to move, to update their skills in new and relevant ways. This, he suggested, is no different.

Martin showed a splendid shot of the new solar garden at Craig with the trio of smokestacks from the Craig Station in the distance. Solar gardens, he said, alone will not be Craig’s salvation. (See my report from last September: A Colorado coal town and EPA jitters.).

China obviously has to be part of the story, and Martin spent three weeks there in his research. It’s the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal. It also burns about as much coal as the rest of the world combined each year.

Even so, burning of coal flattened in China last year while expansion of renewables continued robustly.

I asked Martin about carbon capture and storage, mentioning a story in Wired magazine last year. The environmental community has denounced CCS as wildly impractical and a boondoggle. The story in Wired made the case that even if its impractically costly now, the technology must be made to work if for the simple reason that the emerging countries, particularly China and India, will continue to burn coal.

Martin answered my question, but not to my satisfaction. He said CCS won’t be practical for 30 years. He ignored the core argument: If China and India continue to burn coal, don’t we have to figure out a way to make it work? And in dismissing technological development, he more or less used the argument that was long used against renewable energy: it’s too expensive.

Despite my dissatisfaction with his answer, I plunked down $30 for this book and look forward to reading it. Travelogue stories don’t work particularly well for me. Yet I suspect I will learn a great deal from this book. Martin is knowledgeable and he obviously writes well.

You can find this book much cheaper on Amazon—used, no less. But I’m happy to support Tattered Cover, because local book stores need to be supported. They sponsored this reading, and Joyce Meskis, the owner-in-transition, has been an important local voice in First Amendment issues over the years .


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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