Dirty Business grew out of an earlier collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting: Hot Politics, a one-hour documentary about the politics of global warming for the PBS series FRONTLINE. That program, which I produced, NPR’s Deb Amos reported/narrated and Justin Weinstein field produced, looked back at the last three administrations and asked why the U.S. has been slower than most of the rest of the world to come to grips with the reality of global warming. The answer lies in the political clout of Big Coal’s lobbying efforts to block pollution-limiting legislation, and in fossil fuel companies’ effective propaganda campaign to cast doubt and confusion about climate change. And it’s still working – the latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 57% of adult respondents thought there was solid evidence of global warming, down from 71% in 2008.
In producing that piece for FRONTLINE, Justin and I were shocked to find there were still plans on the books to build some 150 new coal-fired power plants around the U.S. at the time (spring 2007) – despite clear evidence that coal plants are the single largest source of manmade greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, that spring you couldn’t turn on your TV set without seeing a new barrage of coal industry adds promoting something called “clean coal” – the industry’s answer to global warming (which, of course, many coal companies had previously worked so hard to refute). “Clean coal”: technological fix to coal’s climate problem?
It was clear to us that if you’re going to talk about global warming, coal is the elephant in the room. But few were talking about it, even as the science of climate change had hardened to absolute certainty. (I’m not going to get into the alleged “controversy” about global warming here. Despite the recent media attention about the hacked emails of climate scientists and the exaggerated alarm about a simple mistake about Himalayan glacial melting in a publication of the International Panel on Climate Change, the climate crisis we’re facing is being revealed to be more serious by new scientific studies almost weekly. To pick just one example, take a look at an alarming study by the U.S. Geological Survey that documents the rapid disappearance of Antarctica’s ice shelves.)
For our crash course on coal, one of the first calls we made was to Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell, who wrote the seminal book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future. In his book – and again, now, in our film – Jeff explains how he, like most Americans, had no idea that we still even burned coal until a New York Times magazine assignment brought him to West Virginia. He was shocked to see the devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining that is turning hundreds of square miles of the Appalachians into barren moonscapes, burying streams, polluting water supplies and destroying local communities and local culture in the process.
We did a long initial interview with Jeff, and soon he came on board as our chief editorial advisor. In the course of the project, his role evolved from talking head and advisor to becoming our narrator and principal guide through the film’s diverse stories.
From the beginning, we faced a major challenge in trying to make a pretty wonky, complicated and technical story something that people would be willing to sit down and take in over 90 minutes. Previous films about coal had solved this problem by focusing on the emotional stakes of people living in or around coalmines, coping with pollution and health issues, or union and employment issues, and almost always in Appalachia, where the coal culture is most traditional and ingrained.
But because we still use coal to generate nearly half of our electricity in the U.S., coal is not just a problem for those folks in West Virginia and Kentucky – it’s a problem for all of us. We wanted to find stories outside of Appalachia to try to emphasize this, and the film is structured around a handful of very different stories shot in Nevada, Kansas, Saskatchewan, New York, California, Pittsburgh and China, in addition to West Virginia. In fact, we ended up with a fair amount of Appalachian footage ourselves, after all – for a filmmaker working in this subject area, the imagery and stories there are both irresistible and indispensable. We also felt it was important to devote at least a third of the film to solutions, not just to point out the problem.
As we began to build the film around these different stories, we found we needed to rely on Jeff Goodell more and more heavily to help unify the film and tie the segments together. (Luckily, Jeff was totally committed to the project and eager to help – despite his constant deadlines for Rolling Stone and the fact that he was in the final stages of finishing his new book, How To Cool the Planet.) Many documentaries, focused on a central, unfolding story, don’t have this problem, and don’t have a subject as technical and diffuse as ours. Our real subject wasn’t so much coal itself, either – we don’t go into the history or techniques of coal mining, as many other films have done – but rather this idea of “clean coal.” That oxymoronic term really refers to the technology known as carbon capture and sequestration or storage (CCS), which in theory would allow the coal companies to stay in business because they’d be able to capture, or remove, the coal pollution (carbon dioxide, CO2) that results from burning coal and which causes global warming, and to store that CO2 deep in the earth’s crust.
That brought us to one of the film’s other main characters, Dr. Julio Friedmann, the expert on CCS who heads up the carbon management program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. We found Julio compelling because, on the one hand he is utterly committed to grappling with the climate crisis, while on the other he is advocating a technological solution – CCS – that is crucial to the very survival of the coal industry in a world that takes global warming seriously. I believe he is utterly sincere in his conviction that the world is going to keep on burning coal, no matter what the climate scientists say, for economic and political reasons, and that therefore we must find a way to deal with the emissions.
Julio Friedmann also convinced us that CCS could work if it’s done correctly, and in places with the appropriate geology. But those are two pretty big ifs right there, given the energy industry’s environmental record. Up in Saskatchewan, Canada, at one of the few places in the world where they are already injecting CO2 for carbon sequestration on an experimental basis, we found a story that suggests, at the very least, the kind of problems we can expect to confront if we’re going to start burying millions of tons of compressed coal plant emissions deep underground.
Moreover, whether carbon capture and storage can be accomplished in time to avert the worst effects of global warming, whether it can be done economically or on the scale necessary to handle all the coal plants in the world, are different questions entirely.
On top of that, a huge problem with the idea of ‘clean coal’ is that technologies that capture carbon – filters, essentially – will decrease a coal plant’s efficiency, meaning they’d have to burn more coal to create the same amount of energy as the unfiltered power plant. So, if this ‘clean coal’ technology is ever put in place – and experts say that could take at least 15 years – it would also mean mining more coal. And that means more mountaintop removal, more coal ash storage problems (remember the recent disaster in Tennessee?), more acid mine drainage, water pollution, and on and on.
So, that central issue of ‘clean coal’ is what launched us on a 3-year journey to make this film. It’s a journey that took us all over the country, as well as to China – the other elephant in the room when you talk about coal and global warming. We’ll get into those other stories and locations in upcoming posts.