No Good Alternative: Volume Two of Carbon Ideologies

No Good Alternative: Volume Two of Carbon Ideologies

by William T. Vollmann


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“The most honest book about climate change yet.” —The Atlantic

The Infinite Jest of climate books.” —The Baffler

An eye-opening look at the consequences of coal mining and oil and natural gas production—the second of a two volume work by award-winning author William T. Vollmann on the ideologies of energy production and the causes of climate change

The second volume of William T. Vollmann's epic book about the factors and human actions that have led to global warming begins in the coal fields of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, where "America's best friend" is not merely a fuel, but a "heritage." Over the course of four years Vollmann finds hollowed out towns with coal-polluted streams and acidified drinking water; makes covert visits to mountaintop removal mines; and offers documented accounts of unpaid fines for federal health and safety violations and of miners who died because their bosses cut corners to make more money.

To write about natural gas, Vollmann journeys to Greeley, Colorado, where he interviews anti-fracking activists, a city planner, and a homeowner with serious health issues from fracking. Turning to oil production, he speaks with, among others, the former CEO of Conoco and a vice president of the Bank of Oklahoma in charge of energy loans, and conducts furtive roadside interviews of guest workers performing oil-related contract labor in the United Arab Emirates.

As with its predecessor, No Immediate Danger, this volume seeks to understand and listen, not to lay blame—except in a few corporate and political cases where outrage is clearly due. Vollmann is a carbon burner just like the rest of us; he describes and quantifies his own power use, then looks around him, trying to explain to the future why it was that we went against scientific consensus, continually increasing the demand for electric power and insisting that we had no good alternative.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525558514
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/02/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 688
Sales rank: 719,065
Product dimensions: 6.01(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

William T. Vollmann is the author of ten novels, including Europe Central, which won the National Book Award. He has also written four collections of stories, including The Atlas, which won the PEN Center USA Award for fiction, a memoir, and six works of nonfiction, including Rising Up and Rising Down and Imperial, both of which were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in the New Yorker, Harpers, Esquire, Granta, and many other publications.


Sacramento, California

Date of Birth:

July 28, 1959

Place of Birth:

Santa Monica, California


Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

Read an Excerpt

What Should Be Measured?

. . . wherefore the best means that I could imagine to wake him out of his trance was to cry loud in his ear 'Hough host! What's to pay? Will no man look to the reckoning here?'

Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, 1594

In a boggy meadow a few paces to the side of a former logging road in West Virginia, a pipe assemblage crouched hissing. Bubbles rushed up from the pool from which rose one of its tubular columns; there was a reek of natural gas, and from the side of that pipe came a steady outrush of gas, comparable in force to the jet of compressed air from a motorized tire pump, which when I was alive could blow a penny across a parking lot. Since methane is a primary constituent of natural gas, I suspect there was methane in this petrochemical breeze that gushed so continually from the ground, the product of negligent waste. Until meeting the retired mining inspector Stanley Sturgill I used to believe that what I smelled in places such as this was methane, which actually bears no odor; the odor is crude oil.-In its first 20 years, methane, as you may recall, is at least 86 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The environmental activist who was guiding us here remarked that he had already informed the state Department of Environmental Protection of this gas rig's ongoing crime. Of course nothing was done, here and for all I knew in thousands and millions of other sites.

Holding the pancake frisker directly in the gas jet, I took a one-minute timed count, and obtained a reading of 15 counts per minute, 0.06 microsieverts per hour-the lowest I had ever obtained in West Virginia, and indeed pretty close to the lowest possible measurement.

Coal-fired power plants give off poisonous emissions, and some of them are even said to be radioactive-which my superficial measurements never found to be so. The air dose by the John E. Amos Power Plant in Nitro, West Virginia (this I measured by poking the frisker out the window of a moving vehicle, a procedure which should have increased the number of encountered particles), was a trifling 39 counts per minute, 0.12 micros per hour. (I did not dig in the ground or frisk anybody's tomatoes.)

In order to accurately inform you to what extent the four modes of resource extraction and utilization considered in Carbon Ideologies were or were not harmful, I would have needed to measure at least the following: carbon dioxide, methane, chlorinated fluorocarbons, aerial particulate sizes, concentrations and compositions; acidity, turbidity, conductivity and metal content of water, the latter subcategorized into selenium, cadmium, aluminum, etcetera; I also ought to have sampled the density of specific microorganisms, amphibians and crustaceans. Accomplishing this was impossible for me, and I am sorry. At a manageable price I could indeed have bought a meter to monitor certain emissions such as carbon dioxide, but the salesman sadly explained that because those gases mix so instantaneously with air, a useful measurement could only have been obtained right up on the smokestack-from which I was fenced out by the so-called regulated community.

That environmental activist in West Virginia (his name was Chad Cordell) had a device to sample water for pH and conductivity; maybe I should have bought one of those. But more often than not, I found myself in waterless places.

So please consider the pancake frisker readings in the remainder of this book as placeholders for the measurements that I would have taken had I possessed more money and power.

Perhaps it was just as well. My readings in the red zones scored sufficient drama in their way; and only one variable-radioactivity-needed to be considered. The manifold effects of fracking, coal-burning, oil refining and kindred operations augmented one other variable of yet more crucial interest: the warming of our planetary home. Since I could frisk neither a smokestack nor a barrel of oil for greenhouse emissions, there was nothing for it but to let this book grow inchoate. I could hint at the villainous parts played by this heavy metal and that gas; there were so many villains! I could portray well-meaning ignorance, mercenary dishonesty and ruthlessness, indifference, useless heroism and sensible accommodation. Among the tales of coal and oil and natural gas I never heard of accidents comparable to the reactor failures at Fukushima. What then could my narratives be?

Although they do not speak directly to climate change, I ask you to consider the preceding nuclear section as a concentrated relation of this book's theme, which runs like this:

Once upon a time there was something dangerous that could not be seen, felt, heard or smelled. ("Because it's invisible . . . ," sighed my Japanese taxi drivers.) Making use of its associated fuel had been convenient, but terribly mistaken. The best plan would have been to get away from this nearly unknowable thing, but such a course of action appeared so utterly inconvenient that we preferred to continue on as before, which might entail killing our children. Then again, maybe our children would be lucky enough to die from their own stupidity instead of ours. As The Wall Street Journal reminded us, I think by way of reassurance:

It's easy enough to drive out to the country and find somebody in overalls willing to blame the latest flood, drought, windstorm or six-legged pest outbreak on the increased carbon in the atmosphere.

About Permissible Limits

For every human presupposition and every enunciation has as much authority as another, unless reason shows the difference between them.

Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond," 1575-80

Assuming that our generation had in fact been able and willing to measure, record and publicly share local and planetary levels of hydrofluorocarbons, nitrous oxides, carbon dioxide and all those other invisible analogues of radiocontamination, the next step, which would have been more contentious, must have been to establish legal ceilings for each, along with procedures for addressing violations.

A few pages earlier I compared Japan's and Ukraine's statutory limits for cesium-137 in various foods. Their variability of categorizations, as in the case of milk, did not entirely obscure consistent ways of thinking. For example, the Ukrainian allowance for higher radioactivity in dried than in fresh foods presumably derived from a supposition that before consumption the dried items would get rehydrated in a significant bulk of (I hope less radioactive) liquid; therefore, one would ingest a smaller quantity of dried than fresh milk, even if the respective liquid volumes were the same. This is arguable, but plausible. And although the Ukrainian allowance of 2,500 becquerels per kilo for dried berries did seem awfully lenient, in fact the two nations' chains of reasoning ran somewhat parallel:

AQ: "a few pages earlier" is in Vol. I. Recast?

The Ministry of Health of Ukraine had set its standards based on the fact that the content of Cs-137 and Sr-90 in food and drinking water should respect the accepted boundaries of the annual effective exposure of 1 mSv. And the Japanese Ministry of the Environment had likewise said: To achieve further food safety and consumer confidence, Japan is planning to reduce [the] maximum permissible dose from 5 mSv/year to 1 mSv/year.

Yes, permissible limits would inevitably be arbitrary, like speed limits, felony charges and rules of war, but that alone could not invalidate them, because the lack of limits was more perilous.

And we needed to draft them for greenhouse gases. In addition to that annual per capita food radiation limit of 1 millisievert, we should have established annual per person emissions ceilings for, at the very least, the dozen most pernicious heat-trapping agents (doubtless you from the future have a longer retrospective wish list).-But that whatever those ceilings were, we would have hated them as infringements of our freedoms. And so when I was alive we wasted years arguing about national and international carbon budgets. It was as if Japan and Ukraine had agreed to disagree as to whether they needed to safeguard their citizens against unregulated intake of cesium-137.

AQ: Delete that?

That was one reason we kept burning and selling coal when I was alive.


West Virginia, U.S.A. (2012-15)

Kentucky, U.S.A. (2015)

Barapukuria, Phulbari and Dhaka, Bangladesh (2015)

Overleaf: Roadside view of a West Virginia coal mine

Coal Ideology



"The lowest cost, most dependable form of energy available."

West Virginia Coal Association, 2013

"Coal is our most abundant fossil fuel source."

George A. Olah, Alain Goeppert and G. K. Surya Prakash, 2009

"Our coal is a basic feedstock of our nation's chemical industry . . ."

West Virginia Coal Association, 2013

"Coal has also contributed to the steady, longterm progress achieved in reducing atmospheric pollutant levels, as well as other improvements."

National Coal Association, 1993

"A secure domestic fuel, unaffected by the politics and instabilities of the Middle East."

National Coal Association, 1993

"The energy density of coal is almost double that of firewood with otherwise similar properties."

Rolf Peter Sieferle, 1982

"Renewable fuel sources . . . cannot do what coal does. They cannot power America 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, rain or shine. And they don't produce steel!"

West Virginia Coal Association, 2012

"Kentucky's elk are all but parked on their surface coal mine reclaims for its [sic] tremendous food and cover value . . . We've never advocated surface mining for the creation of wildlife habitat, but it does what it does for certain species with proper reclamation."

Bob Fala, West Virginian "outdoors columnist," 2014

Among the fruits of the "West Virginia Coal Tree," which occasionally appears as a newspaper or brochure illustration: billiard balls, disinfectant, perfumes, fertilizer, laughing gas, baking powder, medicines, paint pigments, sugar substitute, food preservatives, linoleum, lipstick, batteries, varnish, soda water, roofing and paving.

There is a similar tree for petroleum, whose branches are not nearly so diverse, but do happily lead to munitions and insecticides. The fracking tree, which you will find described in the appropriate place, much resembles the trees for coal and petroleum.

A University of Kentucky experiment concluded that certain coal mine microbes might "help fight disease."


ECONOMic Appeal

"Provides small businesses and seniors on fixed incomes with affordable electricity rates."

Joshua Nelson, Representative, West Virginia House of Delegates, 23rd District, 2015

"We are the Saudi Arabia of America . . . When we still have so much coal, so much opportunities [sic] in coal, we just can't turn our back on that."

Bill Cole (R-Mercer), West Virginia Senate President, 2015

"From my point . . . the coal [is] very important in China. It needs the coal! The coal is very important. China should develop another coal more, for productivity-but only one, since there are many environmental harms. So only one coal more will not do so much harm."

Mr. Zhang Wen, Chinese guest worker at the Barapukuria coal mine, Bangladesh, 2015

"This is black gold money and we all should benefit."

Mr. Rabiul Islam Rabi, President of the Barapukuria Workers' Union, 2015

"The one saving grace for coal in the US has been users' memory of natural gas prices spiking . . . in the mid-2000s . . ."

Chris Faulkner, CEO, Breitling Energy Corporation, 2014

"Coal matters. Vote for jobs."

Banner at West Virginia Coal Festival, Madison, West Virginia, 2013

"Keep WV alive. Support coal!"

Message on car, West Virginia Coal Festival, 2013


"We support the veterans. Keep the coal burning."

Painted on American Legion building, Williamson, West Virginia [seen 2015]

"Remember-Coal is West Virginia!"

Friends of Coal slogan, 2014

"Proud To Be A Coal Miner."

In display inside restaurant, Northfork, West Virginia, 2014


Fire department sign display at West Virginia Coal Festival, 2013

LOCAL Appeal

"As sources of energy, oil and gas are better and cleaner and their prices are lower. But here in Bangladesh we don't have oil or gas, so obviously coal is better."

Administrator at the Barapukuria coal mine, 2015

"There's no alternative to coal, since we've run out of gas here."

Security guard at the same place, 2015

"There's no substitute for coal in Bangladesh, and we have really good bituminous coal."

Rabiul Islam Rabi, 2015

"Coal mining is the tie that binds our generation. It is our heritage and has shaped our culture."

West Virginia Coal Association, 2013

"One of West Virginia's leading industries. For decades, it has been providing thousands of good-paying jobs, infusing millions of dollars into local and state economies and providing low-cost energy for its industries and residents."

West Virginia Coal Association, 2013


AQ: Almost the same as on p.11. Delete one? or stet?

Decal on car in Madison, West Virginia, 2013

In McDowell County "you're either a coal miner, you're a prison guard or you're in prison."

Diner waitress, Charleston, West Virginia, 2014

Nationalistic Appeal

"America runs on coal."

West Virginia Coal Festival slogan, 2014

"Our role is critically important to our nation's quest to become energy independent and break that unholy grip of our dependence on foreign oil."

West Virginia Coal Association, 2013

"Coal is the answer for powering America . . . Coal remains the least expensive fuel source . . ."

Joy Mining Machinery, Pennsylvania, 2009

"We Salute the Coal Industry. It's America's Power."

James A. Redding Company, 2014

"When America runs out of oil, it won't run out of energy thanks to our vast reserves of COAL."

Alliance Resource Partners, L.P., 2009

"Coal is expected to play a major role in addressing some of India's energy challenges."

Australian government report, 2015

"The role of coal, and especially of black coal, is . . . of overwhelming importance to the future development of the energy economy and hence to the social and economic growth of the nation."

Dr. Ing. Zymunt Falecki, Scientific and Development Centre for Energy Problems [Poland], 1980

"Harnessing Bangladesh's natural gas reserves and vast quantities of coal in the Phulbari region could improve the lives of 150 million Bangladeshis. U.S. energy sector cooperation also offers the prospect of commercial benefit."

U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty, confidential cable, 2009

"Coal put 'great' into Great Britain-it's as simple as that."

Chris Kitchen, president of the National Union of Mineworkers [U.K.], 2015


"Each new day is a blessing working as a coal miner."

Homemade sign in front of house, Madison, West Virginia, 2014

Tautological Twaddle

"Coal lights our nights and brightens our future."

Utah Power and Light, before 1985

"Coal, the overwhelming energy choice for today's living."

West Virginia Coal Association, 2009

"It's A Matter of Pride."

Slogan at the Pinnacle Mine, near Welch, West Virginia, 2014


Bumper sticker in Harlan, Kentucky, 2015


Table of Contents

List of Maps and Illustrations xi

What Should Be Measured? 1

About Permissible Limits 4


Coal Ideology 9

About Coal 18

Coal Types, Simplified 20

About Sulfur 26

2 America's Best Friend (West Virginia and Kentucky, 2013-15) 31

Comparative Carbon Emissions, Energy Use, Manufacturing Efficiencies and Attitudes About Industrial Regulation: Japan, Germany and the United States, ca. 1995-97, in multiples of Japan's per capita CO2 emissions 47

Comparative Use of Coal for Energy Generation, 2013-15, Japan, EU-15, U.S.A. and West Virginia 50

Highlights of Don Blankenship's Trial, as told by media sources, 2014-16 68

"The Bill Cole Plan": From the platform of Jim Justice's opponent, 2016 108

Letters to the Charleston Gazette, 2013 112

A Field Guide to West Virginian Politicians, ca. 2013-15 122

Coal Combustion's Percentage of Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Releases for Selected Countries, 2010, in multiples of the Swiss figure 134

Active Coal Mining Sites in West Virginia and Total U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions for Coal-Generated Electricity, 2012-14 138

Coal use as a percentage of total fuel consumption: U.S.A., 1870, and World, 1991 139

Regional Coal Prices, per ton, April 15, 2015 140

From a local newspaper, 2014: "Safe Enough to Eat" 147

What Did Coal, Nuclear and Oil Have in Common? (An Anecdote from a Children's Book on the Deepwater Gulf Oil Spill of 2010) 171

From West Virginia American Water's brochure, ca. 2015 177

Legalizing the no comment: From the text of Senate Bill No. 423 178

Legal Consequences of the MCHM Spill, 2014-16 179

American Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Fossil Fuels, 1990 and 2012, in multiples of the 1990 figure for natural gas 203

Who Was to Blame for Flint, Michigan? (One Man Explains, 2015) 205

From a local newspaper, 2015: "House votes 95-4 for repeal of alternative energy law" 206

From a local newspaper, 2014: "Black lung's worst form roars back" 213

From "A Coal Miner's Apology to Today's America" by Roger Horton, 2014 217

Comparative Standard Electrical Loads for Sport, Commercial and Industrial Lighting, U.S.A., 2002, in multiples of the load for an outdoor skating rink lit with high pressure sodium lamps 218

Correcting the West Virginia Board of Education's science education standards, 2014 222

3 "Today or Tomorrow it Will Have to Come Out" (Phulbari and Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2015) 237

Comparative Calorific Efficiencies, 2015, in multiples of the number of bricks produced by I pound of Indian coal 282

Comparative Calorific Efficiencies, 2015, in multiples of the thermal energy of Indian coal 283

Barapukuria coal ranked against major American coals, various years 285

Comparative Carbon Dioxide Emissions to Make One Brick, in multiples of the average emissions of West Virginian bituminous coal 285

The Trend 293

Fracking and Natural Gas

Fracking and Natural Gas Ideology 297

About Natural Gas 301

German Emission Factors in Natural Gas Production, 2007, in multiples of the value for nitrogen oxides 301

About Methane 307

Carbon Gas Emissions of Common Fuels, in multiples of methane's 308

Primary Sources of Methane in Mexico, 2002 310

Quantity of Fuel Resource Which Will Release 1 Pound of Methane, ca. 2007, in multiples of the value for hard coal 310

About Fracking 317

4 Among the Most Vigilant Protectors of the Environment (Greeley and Loveland, Colorado, 2015) 325

Two Counties Compared: McDowell, West Virginia, versus Weld, Colorado 343

About Volatile Organic Compounds 352

Keeping Trade Secrets in Pennsylvania: The Oil and Gas Omnibus Amendments Act, 2012 358


Oil Ideology 401

About Oil 408

Quantity of German Oil Whose Extraction Alone Will Release 1 Pound of Specified Greenhouse Gases, in multiples of the value for carbon dioxide, 2007 412

About Internal Combustion Engines 422

Comparative Heat Efficiencies of Engines, 1911-2015, in multiples of the efficiency of a reciprocating steam engine 423

Carbon Dioxide Emissions of Three New-Model American Cars, 2016, in multiples of the figure for an "F-Pace" Jaquar 428

What Was the Work For? (continued) 430

5 "The Whole World Depends On It Here" (Mexico, 2014) 437

6 "You Will Have Beautiful Lawns and Green Grass" (California, 2016) 449

7 "It's All Economic in the End" (Oklahoma, 2016) 463

Global Primary Energy Consumption by Source, 1980 and 2011, in multiples of 1980 absolute consumption figures 492

8 "I Am Here Only for Working" (United Arab Emirates, 2016) 499

Per Capita Gross Domestic Products and Unemployment Rates of Some U. A.E. Guest Worker Countries, from Central Intelligence Agency data, 2001-14, in multiples of the GDP for Cameroon 552

About Batteries and Fuel Cells 563

Comparative Battery Energy Densities, in multiples of the lower range of lead-acid battery 564

Happily Ever After, or, the Marriage of Carbon Ideologies

And So, And Then

Accidents and the Bottom Line: Common Testimony on the Regulated Community, 2010-14 581

Acknowledgments 659

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