Published: March 2009
Essay by Michelle Nijhuis

A decade ago, when I moved to a small town in western Colorado, coal kept me warm at night. In the basement of my rented house lived an old-fashioned furnace, a heaving beast that inhaled frequent shovelfuls of coal and exhaled warm, particle-filled air through upstairs vents. The ton of coal I bought each fall was astoundingly cheap, partly because I lived near its source. Less than ten miles away, workers at three mines send a steady stream of coal into waiting trucks and freight cars, which rumble and whistle through the valley and beyond.

In some ways, this outpost of the global fossil-fuel economy is lucky. Aside from looming coal silos and a few roads across the mesas, the underground mines make scant visible marks on the land. Their coal is low in sulfur, and it is in demand by power plants eager to meet Clean Air Act standards.

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.

North America, of course, pays only part of the global price of power. In China, where the coal-mining industry employs about three million people, thousands of miners—many migrant workers, willing to risk their lives for a steady job—die in mine floods, fires, cave-ins, and explosions every year. Despite a recent government crackdown on lax safety practices, the tragedies continue. Respiratory diseases are rampant in China's coal belt, and acid rain, the result of coal combustion, eats away at the country's farmland and forests. Bleaker still is the oil-rich Niger Delta of Nigeria, where oil spills, acid rain, and frenzied canal and pipeline construction have decimated one of the world's largest wetlands. Instead of bringing prosperity, the country's oil boom has delivered political corruption and crushing poverty.

Despite the destruction and suffering they cause, fossil-fuel booms continue apace, in part because they feed the worldwide hunger for energy—and in part because they offer their neighbors an irresistible devil's bargain. To many small, isolated towns, industry brings tempting perks: Thanks to gas-company taxes, public-school students in the tiny town of Pinedale, Wyoming, enjoy a $20-million recreation center and classrooms outfitted with high-tech tools. The western Colorado town of Rifle, another beneficiary of the Rocky Mountain natural-gas boom, has a new community college campus built with gas-company donations.

Jobs in mines or on drill rigs, while risky, are lucrative, sometimes the best living available to those without university degrees. And many energy-industry workers in the Rockies, the Appalachians, and elsewhere in the world take complicated pride in doing a dangerous job well, in carrying on a family or community tradition, and in providing an essential commodity to fellow citizens. Change is often viewed not as a savior but as a threat.

But change is afoot, and some of it offers a kinder bargain. Under a new Colorado law, the state's major utilities must buy 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Wind turbines and solar panels are rising on Colorado farm- and ranchland, and some blue-collar jobs are acquiring a green tinge. In my town, on the edge of the gas patch, the old middle school still hosts safety training for coal miners. But less than a mile away, at a new campus of the nonprofit Solar Energy International, renewable-energy experts are showing building contractors, electricians, and the occasional retired oil and gas worker how to cash in on a new sort of energy boom. Geology remains destiny, but not for long.