The Big Breakdown of coal, illustrated by one chart

After World War II, the federal government, utilities, and developers embarked on a project to build dams, mines, power plants, and high-transmission lines across the Interior West in order to electrify and deliver water to the cities that were sprawling across the desert. The intent of what scholar and law professor Charles Wilkinson called “The Big Buildup” was both to meet the demand created by the huge post-War migration, and to create new demand — to lure more people, and therefore more money, to the Southwest. The likes of Phoenix and Las Vegas as we know them today were made possible by the Big Buildup, and the Big Buildup, in turn, was enabled by theft of land, cheating tribal nations out of royalties, government subsidies, and lax regulations.

For five decades this coal-fired machine churned away, pumping electricity into the cities, cash into state and tribal coffers, and pollution into the water, land, and air. Those of us born during or after 1970 would never know a Four Corners Country without economies that relied on coal, or without the yellow-gray gauze that obscures every vista. The machine seemed invincible, stable, recession proof, and immune to boom and bust cycles. The growing populations of the West would continue to demand more and more electricity, meaning the plants would burn more and more coal.

In 2008, recession washed over the nation like a wave, putting a damper on demand for electricity — and thus coal. There was nothing surprising about that. But what happened next was astounding: As the economy recovered, and demand for power stopped dropping, coal consumption kept plummeting. For the first time in sixty years, for a variety of reasons, the fortunes of coal and electricity had been decoupled.

Now the machine assembled by the Big Buildup is breaking down in dramatic fashion, with coal plants retiring left and right, and those that remain burning less and less coal.

This is not merely another downward swing in the extractive industries’ boom-bust cycle. It’s the death of an entire economic sector, a paradigm shift, if you will. Its effects will be every bit as profound as the Big Buildup’s. Call it the Big Breakdown. I’ll be covering the phenomenon here and elsewhere over the coming months and years — this is not a fast death.

But for now I’ll just leave you the chart above, which so clearly illustrates the great decoupling and the underlying cause of the Big Breakdown. 

Infographic constructed by Jonathan P. Thompson using data from the Energy Information Administration. 


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