Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars

Fighting Goliath. Texas Coal Wars

Narrated by Robert Redford, Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars is a dry, safe, straightforward, half hour or so environmentalist documentary. In style it feels not unlike a public service announcement, though in substance it’s too “left” to function as such in a society whose mass media are owned by major corporations.

Its subject matter is very like that of Texas Gold, but it has less of an amateur “student film” feel to it. Not that it’s particularly sophisticated in some artistic sense, but it’s shot and edited competently. And just by virtue of having such a recognizable figure as Redford as a narrator, it has a more professional feel to it.

The film chronicles local resistance in dozens of Texas communities to the building of numerous new coal processing plants. Conservatives led by Governor Rick Perry are, not surprisingly, carrying the water for their corporate paymasters who are looking for shortcuts through the process of getting their plants approved and built.

The opposition wants at the very least to convince the courts to reinstate the usual process, so they’ll have an opportunity to block some or all of the new plants before they are rushed through.

That opposition consists not only of the usual environmentalists, but plenty of local people and mainstream politicians (including an ex-mayor of Dallas in a key role) who normally wouldn’t be caught dead on the liberal side of an issue.

It would be nice to say they saw the light and had switched their politics as a matter of principle, but all or most of the local opposition seems to have been based on the classic NIMBY objections to having unpleasant things close by that could adversely affect health or land values.

The opposition wins at least some partial victories along the way. A court indeed does block the efforts to “fast track” approval for the new plants, and shortly thereafter the plans for over half of them are dropped, with only a few (of the biggest, dirtiest ones) remaining on the table.

As expected, the film treats it as obvious that the proposed coal plants are bad, celebrates the people who have banded together to try to stop them, and highlights the feel-good message that ordinary people really can make a difference if they just try.

But it’s honest enough to acknowledge a few other points. The plants would bring certain (maybe small, maybe temporary, maybe not well-distributed) economic benefits to the towns that allow them. And if we don’t do things like build a lot more coal processing plants, we’ll just have to do other things that people don’t like or that have their own drawbacks, like drastically changing how and how much we use energy, and/or pumping a lot more money into still somewhat speculative “cleaner” sources of energy. As Redford intones, “There are no easy answers.” So at least give the film credit for that much honesty.

On the whole, Fighting Goliath is a mildly uplifting, mildly dull story of ground level political activism. Worthwhile, but probably not the kind of thing anyone who isn’t already a believer in environmental activism would ever see, nor would be swayed by if they did.

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