A few weeks ago, James Fallows and I took his elegant little plane out of the Montgomery County Air Park and into the sky above the mountaintop-removal coal mines of Appalachia. Fallows had just completed a masterful piece on the future of coal and the productive relationship emerging between Chinese and American researchers trying to clean up the mining and usage of burnable rocks. To accompany the article, Fallows suggested we make a video of a flight over the region most impacted by coal mining.
Among coal's many downsides is the incredible toll it takes on the land where it's mined. Walk across an abandoned oil field and aside from the dinosaurian oil derricks, it doesn't look much different from how it did before people took its buried treasure. Oil pools underground and you slurp it up (like a milkshake) with snaking wells. The land stays intact.
Coal, on the other hand, is the land in some places. When you mine it from the surface, the land is just gone, hence the name "mountaintop-removal" coal mining, one of the few brandings environmentalists have really gotten to stick.
I'd seen satellite photos that implied the scale of the problem was enormous, but I didn't really understand what it was like until we flew over the area southwest of Charleston, West Virginia. Take this mine near Kayford, WV. If it was located in Washington, DC, the mine would stretch from Capitol Hill and Anacostia all the way through the city to Cathedral Heights.