I grabbed a lemonade, donned my sunglasses, eased into my backyard wicker chair, and dug in for Jeff Goodell's journalistic "ride" through the national coal-fired construct with the new book Big Coal. As soon as I finished, I packed up my shades and headed to the office to get the author on the phone. Goodell, a California native, is acutely aware of what he refers to as "California's coal shadow" - how importing coal-fired electricity to our power-thirsty state can affect other regions. As a result, he's a big fan of cap-and-trade systems. "Regional cap and trade," like what politicians are considering in AB 32, would help "push us toward a national system," he told me. Regional cap and trade would be "political wedges" to "blow a hole in the myth of economic peril." He says the "Big Coal" industry is fear mongering when it pleads that "if we put a price on carbon, we'll be back in caves." At some points, Goodell's book provides quite a ride. I've covered recent U.S. Senate Energy Committee hearings on coal - including the "weak link," getting coal from mines to power plants - and found Goodell's story of riding the specialized coal railroad lines compelling. Interruptions and waylays are the norm, Goodell notes after several sojourns on the lines. Rail engineers' frustration level is so high on the routes that an engineer's fist through a window of a way station is no big deal. Railroads have a monopoly on the Wyoming coal bed region. They are oversubscribed. And rails are easily disrupted (Circuit, May 26, 2006). "Rail is a huge constraint for coal," Goodell tells me. Coal-related rail companies have had increasing influence in the last few years because of their ties to the Bush administration, according to the book. I've heard senators from both parties acknowledge that rail companies have a monopoly on coal lines. But they have no inclination to do anything about it on a national level. As the country and, no doubt, California rely more on coal-fired power, rail transportation will become more of a concern. The book notes that while tens of billions of tons of coal lie available for mining, an entire trainload - a whopping 12,500 tons - is only enough fuel to keep a big plant going for half a day. He adds that while the Frontier Line - the huge transmission line that may bring power from the coal center in Wyoming to California - is controversial, it's "easier to build transmission than a railroad." The Frontier line would allow people in Wyoming "to make money by selling electricity, not coal. Selling coal is a brutal commodity business. They'd all rather sell electricity than coal," he explains, because moving electrons is far easier than transporting the black rock. Unless Microsoft decides to expand into the railroad business, there will probably be no new competition for the existing monopoly. The only answer seems to be to have existing railroads build parallel lines and run more trains. Sore spots that Goodell points out include other weak links in coal power developments. He is, however, resigned to the fact that coal will play a significant part in the nation's power in the near future. He conveys that renewables can't just step in and save things. He's a journalist, not an evangelist. Using gasified coal (integrated gasification combined-cycle, or IGCC, technology) to run cleaner-burning power plants, along with a carbon sequestration program, is what California politicians and some environmentalists are hoping for as fossil-fired salvation. Using the technology could zero out global warming gases. Goodell notes that coal gasification technology is nothing new. In fact, the book notes that the first IGCC plant was right here, along the edge of Route 66 in Southern California - Southern California Edison's Cool Water plant. The plant ran from 1984 to 1989. While coal gasification is embraced by some environmentalists as well as politicians, the book reports that some enviros would "like to drive a stake through the heart of the coal industry." For them, IGCC is too little too late. If implemented, it would mean 50 more years of coal dependence. The Natural Resources Defense Council, however, finds gasification the centerpiece of a "grand bargain" between power companies and enviros, according to the book. Gasification might be reliable old technology, but carbon sequestration isn't, notes Goodell. Sequestration, a plan to capture carbon dioxide emitted from coal plants and stick it somewhere - underground or underwater - is an iffy process at best. The idea is to keep the gas from entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. During our conversation, Goodell brought up an interesting problem that I've never considered - even though I've lived in seismically active California all my life. That is that injecting large amounts of carbon dioxide can cause earthquakes and who knows what else. "There was a notable one near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the 1980s that set off a 5.5 Richter earthquake," Goodell informed me. His book explains that the largest sequestration project, the Weyburn field, will store 25 million tons of CO2. But that's only as much carbon dioxide as one big power plant releases in a year. "If carbon sequestration does indeed become widespread, tens of thousand of people will be living above giant bubbles of CO2," notes the book. "The larger issue is that sequestration is being sold as a pretty future of coal," according to Goodell. There are, apparently, a zillion "ifs" about sequestration. "There's a whole lot of complications that are not being studied." Goodell in his book goes into the history of coal as it developed 350 million years ago, during the Carboniferous Period. As part of his research, he also spent time in coal mining towns. "No matter how you cut it, coal mining is vastly more invasive than oil or gas drilling. Done right, inserting a drill bit deep into the earth to tap a pool of oil or gas is minimally destructive. But mining coal is always brutal." As with oil, "the easy stuff's gone." Goodell paints a bleak portrait of strip mines, underground mines, mountaintop removal, and mines' effects on water and erosion, as well as coal miners' lives and deaths. Yet there's no shortage of the fossil fuel in the U.S. - though there's not as much as coal companies would like us to believe. The book notes a national reassessment of coal reserves supposed to be completed by the U.S. Geological Survey in 10 years. One of the geologists studying it estimates that even in Wyoming's coal-rich Powder River Basin, only 11 percent of the coal is "economically recoverable." The book says that the coal industry's claim of "250 years worth of cheap coal left in America is a gross exaggeration." The man in charge of coal numbers at the Energy Information Administration, Rich Bonskowski, is quoted as saying that he'd like to "bring sober assessment to those numbers" (the 250 years), but the EIA doesn't have the resources. While Goodell has seen a bright side to lessening coal's rampant development as he's toured the nation with his book in the last couple of months - he says there's been a "rapid evolution of people's consciousness" about fuel and electricity consumption in general - the onslaught of new coal power appears unstoppable. "For Big Coal, the slogan 'Opportunity Returns' is, if anything, an understatement." Goodell quotes the International Energy Agency prediction that one-third of the new capacity built in the U.S. between 2005 and 2025 will be coal-fired. "There's so much political power behind coal to get built before there's a price on carbon, coal is going to be around for awhile. There will be a whole generation of power plants," he sighs.