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'No Good Alternative': On America's Love Affair With Coal

An excerpt from William T. Vollmann's new book.
Smoke rises from Pacificorp's 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant on October 9th, 2017, outside Huntington, Utah.

Smoke rises from Pacificorp's 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant on October 9th, 2017, outside Huntington, Utah.

"The brain has accomplished what the arm and hand never attempted, converting the power of the sunshine into blessings for the human race." —L. W. Ellis and Edward A. Rumely, Power and the Plow, 1911

Most of us burned bituminous coal when we could afford it—anthracite being out of reach. Poorer Earthlings burned lignite. Of course a lot depended on which subtype lay buried nearest. Eastern Europeans found much lignite at hand, while Appalachians, by so many other definitions impoverished, received bituminous-flavored electricity, and occasionally even went out to some highway cut to chip out a bucket or two of bituminous coal to keep their families warm. And for a long time coal seemed as cheap and easy, if not quite as magically fabulous, as nuclear power.

If its energy could all be utilized in a steam tractor, the authors of our epigraph calculated, one pound of coal, costing two fifths of a cent and having 14,000 B.t.u., would produce about eleven million foot-​­pounds of work, or approximately the useful work of one horse for one day.

Yes, it heated our homes (and, proximately and unintentionally, the atmosphere), made steam which turned electric turbines, and employed miners. In Appalachia the long-term experience of digging and using coal became part of the culture. Almost all of New Mexico's electrical production emissions came from coal in 2000. Rolling through that state in 2016, I found coal memorialized in thoroughfares and eateries:

Coal Street Pub in Gallup, New Mexico.

Coal Street Pub in Gallup, New Mexico.

When I was alive my old chemistry textbooks mostly roosted in a spiderwebbed niche which I could reach only by ladder. What did I care about chemicals? You in your starveling future existence might feel the same—for the productive surplus enabling some level of universal education must have burned and flooded away, in which case please skip the next two pages; they list certain industrial reasons that we loved coal. Why trouble yourself? When I got out my acrylic colors and the pretty model assumed her pose, neither one of us had to think about the coal tar derivatives on my paintbrush. Afterward she took a shower, lathering up her hair with coal. I could go on and on about this fossil fuel (in which, as a matter of fact, one sometimes discovered petrified ferns and other extinct wonders). But all I really need to say is: no good alternative.

Sometimes we burned coal only partially, into coke, with which we made steel. And when coked, each ton of soft coal gave up 120 pounds of coal tar, which in turn produced two pounds of benzene (which we once upon a time had to extract from whale oil), half a pound of toluene, 0.1 pound of xylenes (starting materials for the production of certain synthetic fibers and films), half a pound of phenol, two pounds of cresols, and five pounds of naphthalene, which was perfect for mothballs and dyes.—Oh, but benzene, that was the cat's pajamas! Without it, we would long since have used up every rubber tree on Earth—because we had to keep manufacturing tires for cars and trucks; and benzene satisfied that demand. (We had learned how to pull it out of oil just as easily as we took it from coal, but don't let me distract you from America's best friend.) Benzene offered up a strong, yet fairly pleasant aromatic odor. (According to environmentalists, the benzene that came out of a single fracked well could contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water.)—In 1960 we made 150 million gallons of benzene alone! Since the density of that compound is 7.73 pounds per gallon, calculating backward from the above recipe reveals that we must have coked 579,750,000 tons (1.159 trillion pounds) of soft coal that year. Marrying it to alcohol, we compelled benzene to become high-performance racing fuel. It could increase the octane rating of gasolines. Upon benzene we founded insecticides, detergents, plastics, and aniline dyes. People with time on their hands employed it to dissolve rubber. Mixed with chlorine, ethanol, and sulfuric acid, it became that ghastly wonder, DDT. ("Slow knock-​­down, sure kill" is the outstanding characteristic of DDT toward most insects. Considerable quantities are used in [India's] malaria eradication program.) Hence in 1966 two organic chemists enthused:

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance to the chemical industry and to our entire economy of the large-scale production of benzene and the alkylbenzenes.... Just where do the enormous reservoirs of simple aromatic compounds come from? There are two large reservoirs of organic material, coal and petroleum, and aromatic compounds are obtained from both. Aromatic compounds are separated as such from coal tar, and are synthesized from the alkanes of petroleum.

A byproduct of coking was ammonium sulfate, which we loved to spread on our fields in order to fertilize the crops and warm the atmosphere.

So kindly refrain from pretending that all we did with coal was burn it. It served us so delightfully as to leave us no good alternative.

—Oh, and that superb welding fuel and plastic-maker known as acetylene, which our chemists used to call the alkyne of chief industrial importance, could be obtained by a few steps from three abundant, cheap raw materials: water, coal, limestone.

By now we had become whizzes at magicking coal into methanol, which was one of the 10 largest-volume organic chemicals produced in the world. (The Sierra Club called it one of the 12 most commonly used air toxics from fracking in the Los Angeles basin.) My high school chemistry book introduced it thus: Methanol is a colorless liquid with a rather pleasant odor. It is very poisonous—a quality we took advantage of when we “denatured” alcohol with it, so that winos would die from drinking what was sold only as fuel. It could dissolve any number of substances, and it served as a versatile feedstock. For instance, we blew aerated methanol vapor across hot copper, and here came formaldehyde! Morticians loved that, and so did plastic-makers. Methanol made antifreeze; methanol made shellac. Sometimes we carbonylated it into acetic acid, which offered many seductive industrial applications. (I used the latter in my darkroom, under the name of "stop bath.") Good old methanol!—We could also dehydrate it into dimethyl ether, which lies halfway to gasoline. (In the 1980s, New Zealanders followed a comparable process to turn their offshore natural gas into motor fuel.)

West Virginian toy cast from coal dust and resin.

West Virginian toy cast from coal dust and resin.

Eastman Kodak turned coal into acetic anhydride, which was a perfect starting point for medicines, sweeteners, and cellulosic plastics. The South African Sasol plant improved it into propylene and polypropylene. In Beulah, North Dakota, lignite entered the Dakota Gasification Company Great Plains, and came out ammonia, sulfur, or synthetic natural gas!

Our women wore coal on their legs, in the form of nylon stockings. They dabbed it on their faces as perfumes. We killed weeds and fueled rockets with it. When I got a headache, I swallowed two coal pills*—although I readily confess that we could and did also make these products out of natural gas.

But in 1980 a talking head at an energy symposium concluded: The single largest end use for coal in recent years has been electric power generation....

No wonder we loved coal! (We especially loved selling it.) From 1971 through 2009, carbon emissions from coal increased by an ecstatic 140 percent.

Coal consumption for electricity generation increased by 248 percent in China between 2000 and 2009, or 569 percent when compared to 1990.... In 2009, China contributed 5.7 gigatons ... which was 46 percent of global coal emissions.

On that happy subject, a scientist observed: Burning coal is a primary source of sulfur gas. Yet the use of coal is rapidly growing.... The sulfur pollution produced by burning coal in China contributes to 400,000 premature deaths per year.


*Or, if you like, they contained a handy coal tar derivative, descended from benzene through the promiscuously soluble, almond-smelling, pale yellow liquid called nitrobenzene, and midwifed by sulfuric acid, which the more knowing sorts called 4-acetamidophenol, while the rest of us bought it over the counter as acetaminophen. 

Excerpted from No Good Alternative: Volume Two of Carbon Ideologies by William T. Vollmann. Used with permission. Copyright © 2018 by William T. Vollmann.