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The Dirty Business of Coal: How Our Addiction to an 18th-Century Energy Source Is Killing Us

A new documentary asks why we are still relying on this antiquated energy source and challenges us to move to cleaner, healthier alternatives.

Coal powers America. But at what cost to the environment and human health? That's the question documentarian Peter Bull and the Center for Investigative Reporting attempt to tackle in the new documentary, Dirty Business: "Clean Coal" and the Battle for Our Energy Future.

Coal has produced power in our country for over 100 years. It pulled us through the Industrial Revolution and has pumped electricity into the hearts of our cities, keeping us warm through winter and up and running throughout the day. It's also caused insurmountable death and destruction along the way, contributing more than its fair share to climate change, water pollution and worker fatalities. So how do we challenge such an entrenched part of our culture and start the process of reversing these trends? That's the big question. Dirty Business shows us the way out of our energy and climate conundrum; we just need the political will to buck the entrenched special interests of the status quo and get imaginative with new alternative solutions.

Recently I caught up with Peter Bull, who has worked as an investigative producer for the last two decades. We discussed his documentary, which will be rolled out for screenings in select cities starting this fall, in house parties and community screenings nationwide, and available as a DVD in late October at the film's Web site.

Joshua Frank: Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to make this film, what drew you to the topic of coal?

Peter Bull: This film grew out of another project I did with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). That was a one-hour documentary for PBS/Frontline called Hot Politics, about the politics of global warming and investigated why the Bush 1, Clinton and Bush 2 administrations all failed to take meaningful action on the greatest threat that humans have come up against. Now it looks as if the Obama administration is about to get added to the list.

That program focused on how scientists like James Hansen and politicians like Tim Wirth and Al Gore tried to sound the alarm and how legislation and U.S. involvement in the Kyoto Protocol was stymied by special interests, particularly the coal and oil lobby, which mounted an aggressive disinformation campaign casting doubt about the science of climate change and playing to the media's propensity for on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand reporting. That kind of reporting is valid when dealing with contentious political issues but has no business being applied to reporting on scientific issues. But with climate change, the result has been that 50 percent of the airtime is given to the less than 1 percent who profess to be skeptics, while the overwhelmingly vast international scientific consensus that man-made climate change not only is real, but accelerating at a dramatic rate.

Anyway, coming off that film in 2007, CIR and I wanted to do a follow-up project, and it seemed as if no one was talking about the elephant in the room in terms of global warming: our dependence upon coal for most or much of our electricity. In the U.S. we still rely on burning coal for nearly 50 percent of our air conditioning, Internet and illumination, etc., while in China it's closer to 80 percent. There have been a number of excellent films about coal itself, focusing mainly on Appalachia and mountaintop removal coal mining, and on the health and environmental impact locally in the coal fields, or on union issues going back to Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA. But as far as we knew, no one had done a film that really makes the connection between all of us -- not just the folks in West Virginia or Kentucky -- and our dependence upon this 18th-century energy resource.