Coal, a black or brownish-black sedimentary rock, is the most abundant fossil fuel on earth. It takes millions of years to develop and is, like other fossil fuels, created from the remains of ancient organisms.

Utilized, since the cave man, for heating and cooking, it was also used in the Roman Empire to heat public baths and, during the Aztec Empire, as a decorative ornament.

Currently, coal is extracted from the earth either by surface or underground mining. Once extracted, composed mostly of carbon and hydrocarbons, the energy it contains can be released through combustion (burning) either directly (for heating and industrial processes) or to fuel power plants for electricity – close to 90% of U.S. coal consumption is in the electric power sector.

Currently mined in 25 states, the U.S., with one of the world’s largest coal reserves, has (as of July, 2020) 263 operating coal-fired power plants, having retired 288 over the ten previous years.

The first one was in lower Manhattan, which began operation in September, 1882. Later that same month, the country’s second commercial power plant was a hydropower plant in Appleton, Wisconsin. Within three years, coal became the most-used energy source in America, overtaking renewables including hydropower and wood.

By 2019, U.S. coal-fired electricity generation had fallen to a 42-year low with annual energy consumption from clean energy sources exceeding coal consumption for the first time in more than 100 years. This was mainly the result of growth in gas plants and renewable energy.

To add insult to injury — just in the year 2019 over 2018 — the decline was so significant that coal consumption in the United States decreased nearly 15%. Despite its decline it remains, however, the dominant CO2 emissions source related to electricity generation — accounting for 60% of the electric power sector CO2 emissions in 2019.

Coal has always been plentiful and cheap, as fossil fuels go, before gas became cheaper and renewables more available. The reduction of our reliance on coal is fortunate in so far as toxins and greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are concerned. Extraction and burning releases the highest levels of pollutants into the air including sulfur dioxide, another pollutant gas that causes respiratory problems, damages crops, forests, and lakes.

Surface mining also permanently alters the landscape. In mountaintop removal, the landscape itself is obliterated and ecosystems are destroyed. This increases erosion in the area. Streams may be blocked, increasing the chances for flooding. Toxins often leach into groundwater, streams, and aquifers.

Coal is one of the most controversial energy sources in the world. The advantages of coal mining are economically and socially significant. And, yet, mining devastates the environment: air, land, and water. Coal combustion is, by far, the nation’s primary culprit of global warming.

What is Coal - More Science on the Learning Videos Channel



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Energy and the environment explained: Where greenhouse gases come from

In the United States, most of the emissions of human-caused (anthropogenic) greenhouse gases (GHG) come primarily from burning fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, and petroleum—for energy use. Economic growth (with short-term fluctuations in growth rate) and…

U.S. renewable energy consumption surpasses coal for the first time in over 130 years

In 2019, U.S. annual energy consumption from renewable sources exceeded coal consumption for the first time since before 1885, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Energy Review. This outcome mainly reflects the…

U.S. coal-fired electricity generation in 2019 falls to 42-year low

Output from the U.S. coal-fired generating fleet dropped to 966,000 gigawatthours (GWh) in 2019, the lowest level since 1976. The decline in last year’s coal generation levels was the largest percentage decline in history (16%)…

The historic decline of US coal

The first commercial power plant in the US was Thomas Edison’s coal-fired Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan, which started operating in September 1882. Later that same month, the country’s (and Edison’s) second commercial power…

Raising Awareness of the Health Impacts of Coal Plant Pollution

In 2000, 2004 and again in 2010, the Clean Air Task Force issued studies based on a methodology and model created by Abt Associates, U.S EPA’s own health benefits consultant, based on peer-reviewed, published studies… Global Coal Plant Tracker

We are environmental, social justice and health advocates who are concerned about coal’s heavy toll on human health, our natural environment and the planet’s climate.

Coal Power Impacts

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The Coal Industry Was Well Aware of Climate Change Predictions Over 50 Years Ago

A rediscovered journal from the 1960s reveals the coal industry has understood the dangers of human-caused climate change for over 50 years, and may constitute the earliest known evidence of such fateful insider knowledge.

Coal ash contaminates groundwater near most US coal plants: study

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The Decline of Kentucky’s Coal Industry Has Produced Hundreds of Safety and Environmental Violations at Strip Mines

By James Bruggers  Photo: Alton Strupp , The Courier Journal   04/18/22  
As the coal industry has collapsed in Kentucky, companies have racked up a rising number of violations at surface mines, and state regulators have failed to bring a record number of them into compliance, internal…

New York shows the challenges of phasing out fossil fuels

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In December, when the New York City Council voted to ban natural gas use in new buildings, environmentalists in the Big Apple barely stopped to celebrate.

How Joe Manchin Aided Coal, and Earned Millions

By Christopher Flavelle and Julie Tate  Photo: Erin Schaff   03/27/22  
On a hilltop overlooking Paw Paw Creek, 15 miles south of the Pennsylvania border, looms a fortresslike structure with a single smokestack, the only viable business in a dying Appalachian town.

‘Last Gasp for Coal’ Saw Illinois Plants Crank up Emission-Spewing Production Last Year

By Brett Chase and Dan Gearino  Photo: Scott Olson , Getty Images   03/18/22  
When Illinois lawmakers decided last year to ban most coal-burning power plants by 2030, it was because their harmful effects were well known.

Beijing ‘doubling down on fossil fuels’; china’s co2 emissions increase; coal production growth

Chinese leaders are “doubling down on fossil fuels” amid “growing” fears of global energy shortages and “rising” concerns of an economic slump, according to Bloomberg. The news came after the Chinese government repeatedly underlined the…

Coal Mining Emits More Super-Polluting Methane Than Venting and Flaring From Gas and Oil Wells, a New Study Finds

By Phil McKenna  Photo: Matthew Horwood , Getty Images   03/15/22  
Methane emissions from coal mines worldwide exceed those from the global oil or gas sectors and are significantly higher than prior estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency and the International Energy Agency, a new Global…

Coal helped drive energy-related CO2 emissions to a record high last year, research says

By Anmar Frangoul  Photo: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images   03/09/22  
Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose to their highest level in history last year, according to the International Energy Agency, as economies rebounded from the coronavirus pandemic with a heavy reliance on coal. The IEA found…

In Virginia, abandoned coal mines are transformed into solar farms

By Zoeann Murphy   03/03/22  
Empty freight cars line the railroad tracks as far as the eye can see from Tim Jennings’s backyard in Dante — a town of less than 600 residents. “They should open up some more new…

US coal use on the rise, but renewables continue rapid growth

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In the U.S., the amount of coal burned to generate electricity peaked in 2007 and then, between 2007 and 2020, fell by more than 61 percent. But as the effects of Covid-19 continue to re-shape…

DOE will build nation’s first large-scale facility to turn fossil fuel waste into rare materials for tech

By Ella Nilsen   02/14/22  
The vast majority of critical minerals and rare earth elements that help power electric vehicles and wind turbines come from mining operations overseas. But a new initiative spearheaded by the US Department of Energy is…

EPA nears deal with Wyo. over massive coal plant

By Benjamin Storrow  Photo: Rick Bowmer , AP Photo   02/07/22  
After months of trading barbs, EPA and Wyoming officials say they’ve had a breakthrough in talks over the future of one of America’s largest coal plants. The reversal comes after a meeting between EPA Administrator…

The environmental case for buying a coal mine

By Richard Fisher  Photo: Sean Gallup   01/19/22  
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How coal holds on in America

By Joshua Partlow  Photo: Dan Koeck   01/17/22  
David Saggau, the chief executive of an energy cooperative, tried to explain the losing economics of running a coal-fired power plant to a North Dakota industry group more than a year ago.

The Biden Administration Takes Action on Toxic Coal Ash Waste

By James Bruggers  Photo: Kate Patterson   01/12/22  
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Black Farmers Are Rebuilding Agriculture in Coal Country

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Coal and trucks pushed US ‘further off track’ for climate targets in 2021

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Opinion: West Virginia’s coal miners just made Joe Manchin’s life a lot harder

By Greg Sargent  Photo: J. Scott Applewhite , AP   01/10/22  
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Coal plant explosion should be a wake-up call

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The world generated more power from coal in 2021 than ever before

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Global demand for coal could hit all-time high in 2022

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Electricity from coal plants has risen by 9% this year to fuel economic recovery from Covid, says watchdog.

Campaign to shut down New England’s last coal plant is doing ‘what must be done’ for the planet

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Let's leave to history to see whether the COP26 deal to "phase down" coal instead of "phase out" makes any real-world difference, but what's clear is that any meaningful "phasing" at all is hard, Ben…

Where electric cars could help save coal

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The Biden administration arrived this month at international climate talks in Scotland with the intent to prove the United States was again ready to lead the fight against global warming.But when more than 40 countries…

What could finally stop new coal plants? Pulling the plug on their insurance.

By Steven Mufson  Photo: George de Castro-Day/Aperture Delta   10/26/21  
The campaign to stop the proliferation of coal plants may come down to a bit of financial engineering: pulling the plug on insurance coverage. More than 30 insurance companies have announced restrictions on underwriting coal…

Coal-fired electricity rebounds in 2021, but resurgence could be short-lived

By Scott Van Voorhis  Photo: Lukas Schulze via Getty Images   10/20/21  
Electricity generated by coal-fired plants is expected to rise by 22% in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), a bounce back that comes amid what has been a long and steep decline.

4 astonishing signs of coal’s declining economic viability

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In the early 2000s, coal fueled China’s rapid growth. From 2000 to 2013, coal consumption in the country grew at a ludicrous pace of 12 percent a year on average, from 1.36 billion tons annually…

Most plans for new coal plants scrapped since Paris agreement

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The global pipeline of new coal power plants has collapsed since the 2015 Paris climate agreement, according to research that suggests the end of the polluting energy source is in sight.

5 rules to make sure coal-plant buyouts benefit the public, not the big banks

By Justin Guay   09/07/21  
Whether it's HSBC and the Asian Development Bank building a fund for coal plant closures in Asia, Citi and Trafigura releasing plans for a global coal-mine closure fund, or Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest investor,…

Renewables Are Fast Replacing Coal, Except in Rural America

By Katherine Blunt   08/08/21  
U.S. utilities are moving to replace coal plants with renewable-energy sources, but the shift is happening more slowly at the cooperatives that serve much of rural America. Electric cooperatives sourced 32% of their power from coal…

The Biden Administration Won’t Explain Its Handout To Big Coal

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One week after being sworn in, President Joe Biden signed a sweeping executive order aimed at “tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad.” It included seemingly clear language about ending subsidies for the industry…

Just 5% of power plants are responsible for 73% of electricity emissions

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Each year, a sprawling coal power plant in Rogowiec, Poland, emits more CO2 than many countries—in 2018, roughly 38 million metric tons. It’s the most polluting power plant in the world. It’s also one of…

​Just 5 Percent of Electric Plants Responsible for 73 percent of Power Sector Emissions

By Don Grant   07/28/21  
Just 5 percent of all power plants globally — all of them coal-fired — are responsible for 73 percent of electricity-sector carbon emissions, according to a new study that calls for cutting emissions from “hyper-polluting” power plants.

U.S. EPA to tighten requirements on toxic waste from coal plants

By Valerie Volcovici and Jan Wolfe  Photo: Brian Snyder , Reuters   07/27/21  
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Coal Shows Its Staying Power as Economies Bounce Back

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Coal use is surging in some of the world’s largest economies as electricity demand rebounds from the pandemic, illustrating the challenges to countries looking to wean themselves off the dirty but reliable fossil fuel.

Justices deny Wyoming, Montana coal suit against Washington

By Mead Gruver  Photo: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File   06/29/21  
The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday that it won’t allow Wyoming and Montana to sue Washington state for denying a key permit to build a coal export dock that would have sent coal to Asia.…

Half of China-Backed Overseas Coal Projects Shelved

Over half of the Chinese-backed overseas coal-fired power plant projects have been shelved or canceled over the past six years, underscoring the rising forces against coal investments globally.

A power plant in Maryland ditches coal for batteries, a first for the US

By Julian Spector  Photo: Talen Energy   06/14/21  
Coal plants are shutting down across the U.S., but one in Maryland is switching to battery power in what appears to be a nationwide first. If successful, the transition could kick off a trend with…

The true price of coal

By Kim Kelly   06/08/21  
It’s been over two months since 1,100 union coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, hit the picket line, citing unfair labor practices against Warrior Met Coal. The strike itself has gained more national attention, which has…

G7 nations vow to phase out international financing for coal projects

By Brady Dennis  Photo: Russell Cheyne   05/21/21  
With the United States again pushing for robust climate action, the countries also agreed to adopt emissions-cutting targets that would meet the most ambitious aims of the Paris climate accord.

Richest nations agree to end support for coal production overseas

By Fiona Harvey  Photo: Kemal Jufri/Greenpeace   05/21/21  
The world’s richest nations have agreed to end their financial support for coal development overseas, in a major step towards phasing out the dirtiest fossil fuel. After nearly two days of wrangling at a meeting…

UMWA Seeks Foothold for Coal in the Green Hydrogen Economy

By Tina Casey  Photo by Magnolia   04/27/21  
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) caused quite a stir last week when it issued a detailed statement in support of federal energy policies that create new clean energy jobs. The timing was perfect…

White House targets $38B to aid coal sector transition, but it’s likely not enough, analysts say

By Emma Penrod  Photo: Brian Tucker   04/26/21  
Existing federal programs have up to $38 billion in unspent funds available that could be used to spur job creation in communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry, according to a report released Friday by…

The predictable economic effects of climate change have started to appear

By Philip Bump  Photo by Sergio Flores   04/21/21  
The United Mine Workers of America released a remarkable document on Monday, an articulation of how the country’s largest union representing coal miners understood the future of the industry.

Banks And Investors Are Still Pouring Billions Into Coal Companies

By Laura Paddison  Photo: Bill Estep/Tribune News Service/Getty Images   02/25/21  
New research reveals the scale of the money that continues to flow to the dirtiest fossil fuel, despite the accelerating climate crisis.

Biden’s Climate Day Confronts A Tricky Question: What Should We Do About Mining?

By Alexander C. Kaufman  Photo by Patrick Fallon   01/28/21  
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders that paused new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, directed the government’s international financing entities to phase out funding for fossil fuel projects…

The World’s Long, Messy Breakup With Coal

By Laura Paddison  Photo by Don Farrall   01/27/21  
Coal had a bad year last year. It was the latest in a line of tricky years, which have seen coal demand slump, coal companies declare bankruptcy and coal plants shutter.

Major Wyoming coal company suffers huge losses, plans to divest from thermal coal

By Camille Erickson  Photo by Cayla Nimmo   11/27/20  
Coal giant Arch Resources, Inc. plans to aggressively shrink thermal coal operations in the Powder River Basin, outlining a shift toward coking coal and steel production in an investor call on Thursday.

Wyoming’s ‘dark money’ coal campaign

By Andrew Graham  Photo by Cayla Nimmo   11/17/20  
At a Sep. 3 press conference, Gov. Mark Gordon introduced a nonprofit that’s been advocating for Wyoming’s coal industry for years: the Energy Policy Network. He announced a new contract with the group in which…

From Appalachia To Wyoming: Youth From Coal Country Discuss The Future After Coal

By Brittany Patterson   10/23/20  
On a recent Saturday, over Zoom, a group of seven high schoolers from Wyoming, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia gazed at an image of a gleaming, pale blue, coal-fired power plant.