But my furnace, and those of my neighbors, cast a sour pall over the town each winter and helped overheat the planet with their outsize carbon dioxide emissions. My heat also came with a human price, a price I noticed each time I looked out my kitchen window. Across the street, at the edge of the town park, a bronze statue of a coal miner stands with pick in hand. Below his boots, a plaque memorializes the nearly 70 men killed in the local mines over the past century. Today, as mechanized mining methods replace many human workers, such deaths are rarer, but they still happen: The latest fatality in the valley was in 2007, and the memorial has room for more names.
I've long since traded my coal shovel for solar panels, but the valley's miners soldier on underground, and geology continues to chart the region's destiny. Demand for cleaner burning fuels has sparked interest in Rocky Mountain natural gas—including the methane trapped in coal seams—and a gas boom now stretches from Montana to New Mexico. The tens of thousands of wellheads, and their webs of new roads, pipelines, and fences, disturb wildlife and destroy pastures, outraging ranchers and hunters alike.
"The oil and gas industry pervades the entire community, pervades the entire landscape," says Duke Cox, a building contractor and environmental activist in western Colorado. "No aspect of life has not been affected."
Such stories are echoed across the country in Appalachia, where mountaintop-removal mining exposes coal seams by blasting away summits—and dumping tons of rock and soil into the narrow valleys below. Julia Bonds, the last person to leave her West Virginia hometown of Marfork Hollow eight years ago, remembers the suffocating clouds of coal dust, the dead fish in the local stream, and the constant threat posed by an earthen sludge dam just a few miles above town. Her seven-year-old grandson, she says, had picked out an escape route. Other towns suffer similar fates: "It's a war zone here," says Bonds, now co-director of the environmental group Coal River Mountain Watch. Mountaintop-removal mining, according to official estimates, has buried more than 700 miles of Appalachian streams; environmental groups say the damage is far greater.
In Alberta, Canada, a host of companies are scouring vast deposits of oil sands for bitumen, a molasses-like substance that can be converted—through energy-intensive processes—into refinable crude oil. With Canadian oil-sands mining and drilling producing more than a million barrels of oil each day, the country's petroleum exports to the United States now outstrip Saudi Arabia's. The oil-sands mines use the world's largest trucks and shovels to crater the landscape, and they have created a network of tailings ponds covering more than 50 square miles—amounting to "a toxic Great Lake," says University of Alberta ecology professor David Schindler. Last summer, children in Fort Chipewyan, a remote Cree and Chipewyan village downstream of oil-sands operations, caught a fish with two jaws; villagers suspect that tailings-pond toxins lie behind a local spate of cancers and other illnesses.