Coal powers roughly 45 percent of the nation’s electrical supply; with about 24 percent coming from natural gas and 20 percent from nuclear (the rest is hydroelectric, petroleum or other).
Think about that next time you plug in the electric car.
The earth doesn’t yield up its energy sources easily or safely, and coal is no exception. On Wednesday, March 30, Spike premieres “Coal,” the new documentary series from Thom Beers and Original Productions, the company behind “Deadliest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers,” “Ax Men” and more.
But not all coal goes for electricity. If it’s highly metallurgical bituminous coal, it may be used for steelmaking, and it may be mined by Cobalt Coal Corporation in West Virginia’s McDowell County. And the men who mine it may 700 feet deep in a dark hole so narrow that they often can’t stand up straight, working under a ceiling (and a mountain above it) that could drop on their heads at any time.
Calling in to Zap2it from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, where he’s been screening the show for the locals, Beers says, “Think about the film crew, too. You’ve got the danger of ‘Deadliest Catch,’ but at the same time, shooting the whole thing on your knees.
“That seam is a small seam. That coal’s only 34 inches thick. It’s the hard coal that’s used for steel. They’ll go through that kind of pain, because they get a much bigger price for it than regular coal.
“When they open the hole for the first time, and they go way deep in that hole, and I’ve got the reverse shot, the light gets smaller and smaller … whoo. They’re standing there, just looking around, and you can hear the cave, hear the mountain sighing and breathing and groaning. Whoo, man, I’ll tell you what, that’s something.”
In the course of human history, the quests for full bellies, warmth and light have occupied much of humanity’s time and effort and — whether you’re talking hunting, logging, fishing, drilling or mining — have offered every kind of peril.
Many of Beers’ shows deal with the modern attempts to produce food and energy (and his “Ice Road Truckers” were often supporting mines and drilling rigs). He’s become such a specialist at it that he’s headlining a session at the upcoming NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show in Las Vegas on April 11, called “Testosterone TV: Behind the Scenes With Original Productions.”
“It’s a little weird for me,” Beers says, “because basically what we’re doing is lifting up the skirts and giving up our secrets. And I don’t often wear a skirt, so that’s uncomfortable.”
But with all of this risk and danger, it’s often government regulators that give him the most headaches.
“Our guys ran into some trouble,” says Beers, “with the screeners of the first episode, being threatened with large fines for certain infractions that are in the mines. It’s the kind of stuff where you sit there going, ‘Really? Are you kidding?’
“A guy gets fined for not wearing his safety glasses. He runs the bolter, and under pressure, it creates a lot of steam, and his glasses are fogging up. He can’t see through his glasses, the safety glasses that are supposed to protect him. Clearly, there’s an issue, so he takes them off, so he can protect himself. Then he’s fined for not wearing them.
“Wait a minute, we completely understand the rules and completely respect them, but you’ve got to take the working man into consideration, too, when you make these rules.”
Even if coal could be waved out of the ground with a magic wand, Beers says, “Look, if you’re not taking a little bit of risk, you’re not living. If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.
“That’s the kind of world it should be anyway. It doesn’t have to always be safe. What fun is that?”
But Beers did have to modify some of his own behavior to talk to folks in a place where life deep inside the Earth causes many to turn their thoughts to Heaven.
“I’m telling you what,” says Beers, “there’s a deep, deep respect for God out there. I gotta admit, I’m not used to this. It’s been quite an interesting exercise, doing these screenings and talking to people, using ‘dang’ and ‘darn’ and those kinds of words.
“They’re not normally part of my vernacular, I swear to gosh! I was using ‘dang’ yesterday, and I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ It felt kind of good.”
Before he loses his phone signal in the hills and hollers, Beers offers a little taste of the “Deadliest Catch” premiere on Tuesday, April 12, showing the first king-crab season since the death last winter of Capt. Phil Harris.
“The first three minutes,” he says, “are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. All the boats head out to sea, and they bury Phil’s ashes, in a crab pot. They dump it into the ocean.
“I tell you, when you see it, cinematically, it is just breathtaking. It’s the most beautiful three minutes that we’ve ever done.”
Can’t promise wind or waves — more like soot and rock — but the trailer for “Coal” is below: