The long, tall fall of Old King Coal 

Coal. Guns. Freedom.

I saw these three words on a little sticker affixed to the window of a car in a small Colorado town. It struck me as funny at first: coal and guns being elevated to the status of platonic ideals or, even more loftily, the refrain of a bad country song. All it was missing was Jesus, beer and Wrangler butts. A few days later, though, as I sat on a desert promontory overlooking northwestern New Mexico, the sticker didn't seem so funny. As the sunrise spilled across sagebrush plains and irrigated cornfields, it also illuminated a narrow band of yellow-brown clouds on the horizon.

The clouds were smog, a soup of sulfur dioxide, particulates, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants emanating from the smokestacks of the coal-burning Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station, on either side of the San Juan River Valley. The people of the Four Corners have experienced that cloud in one form or another nearly every day for the past half century. Our skies have been sullied, as have our lungs. Mercury wafts from these and other smokestacks and falls with rain on Mesa Verde National Park and in the clear, icy streams of the San Juan Mountains. The power plants suck millions of gallons of water from the river each day for steam production and cooling, and they leave behind mountains of ash, clinkers and sludge tainted with mercury, arsenic, selenium and other toxic material. That's all in addition to the tens of millions of tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide the stacks release each year.

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We've been told that this is just the price we pay for power, that this is what it costs to keep the lights on in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, that we have no choice but to live with it. To stop burning coal, or even try to mitigate the harm, we've been told, will put thousands of hard-working Americans out of a job, cause electricity costs to skyrocket, and black-out our lights and computers.

Coal. Guns. Freedom.

Now, however, as many of the West's biggest coal plants near the end of their lives, coal-fired electricity is going the way of the steam locomotive and manual typewriter. It's becoming clear that King Coal was a big lie, a long-standing myth. For decades, we've been hoodwinked by the fetishization of coal, to the detriment of us all.

Coal fueled the white invasion of the West. It stoked smelters, powered locomotives and generated steam, driving mills that processed tons and tons of rock. Newcomers heated their homes and cooked with coal, thousands of them toiling in mines to keep the fires going. The coal industry rose up on those miners' backs, reaping enormous profits that lined politicians' pockets. These lawmakers returned the favor by keeping regulations minimal and royalties low on federal mineral reserves, and by sending troops to murder striking miners. "Coal is the fuel of the present," crowed the author of a 1906 U.S. Geological Survey report, "and so far as can be seen, will continue to lead ... for a long time to come."

Yet even then, Westerners were slowly shifting away from the expensive, dirty and inconvenient fuel. The electricity that powered the mines and towns was, by and large, generated from falling water. And when the pipelined bounty of the 1920s-era natural gas boom spread from New Mexico and Texas across the West, homeowners switched en masse to gas for cooking and heating, saying goodbye to stokers, clinkers and coal's pervasive, greasy film.

By 1950, coal provided a mere 10 percent of the West's electricity. Natural gas generation was eating into that slice, and plans for a network of dams along the Colorado River threatened to flood the grid with even more cheap, coal-displacing hydropower. Steam locomotives went the way of the dinosaurs, driven to extinction by diesel. American coal consumption fell by 20 percent in the 1950s alone. In the West, it plummeted by 40 percent.

Facing an existential crisis, coal industry executives knew they could not compete based on the merits of their fuel. Instead, they set out to imbue it with symbolism and mythology. Coal was not just coal, the lobbyists argued. It was abundant, reliable and deserving of a seat in the pantheon of American culture, alongside cowboys, guns—and, yes, freedom. (They also managed to convince the Sierra Club that coal plants were a green alternative to river-ruining dams.)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

Most of all, coal was equated with honest jobs for hard-working miners (and voters)never mind that mechanization and efficiency had been killing off mining jobs since the early 1900s. The shift from coal to diesel and natural gas was framed not as mere consumer choice between commodities, but as an attack on some ineffable American value.

Coal. Guns. Freedom.

The industry enlisted Sen. Wayne Aspinall, a Democrat from the coal state of Colorado, to its cause, and Congress created the Office of Coal Research in 1960 "to encourage and stimulate the production of coal in the United States through research and development ... and maximize the contribution of coal to the overall energy market." Lawmakers from coal-producing counties and states ganged up on other forms of energy, taxing natural gas, for example, or requiring public institutions to heat with coal, free market be damned.

In 1952, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its "Study of Future Power Transmission for the West." It revealed the perverse logic that prevailed at the time: Since both the population and per capita electricity use were rapidly increasing, new power plants were needed. The new power supplies would lower electricity prices, thus drawing more people and encouraging more consumption, which would then spur the building of more power plants, and so on. It was a recipe for a slow-building disaster, regardless of what fueled the power plants. Pushing coal as the main ingredient made it that much more catastrophic.

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