I’m staring over the edge of a cliff into a seam of coal some 80 feet thick running along a chasm cut deep into the earth. A gargantuan claw rips a massive bite from the slab and swings it into the bed of a preposterously large dump truck.

Scott Durgin, who manages the mine for Peabody Energy, tries hard to communicate its enormous scale.

In a typical day, Mr. Durgin tells me, 21 trains depart the mine, pulling 135 cars each. Each car bears 120 tons of coal. At this pace, he says, there is more than 20 years’ worth of coal ready to mine under my feet.

North Antelope Rochelle is among the biggest coal mines in the world. It produced 108 million tons last year — about 10 percent of all the coal burned by the nation’s power plants.

Standing at the precipice, staring into the thick black mineral vein, I find it difficult to envisage how an enterprise of this magnitude could be stopped, and what could take its place.

North Antelope Rochelle is only 30 years old. It wasn’t around during the first oil shock of 1973 or during the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to a second oil shock. It hadn’t opened for business when a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania melted down, when 200,000 people gathered in New York City’s Battery Park to hear Ralph Nader demand the end of atomic power and Carly Simon sing yearningly about the “comforting glow of a wood fire.”

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