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.



High Cost of Cheap Coal: The Coal Paradox

On a scorching August day in southwestern Indiana, the giant Gibson generating station is running flat out. Its five 180-foot-high (54.9-meter-high) boilers are gulping 25 tons (22.7 metric tons) of coal each minute, sending thousand-degree…

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

Formed deep underground over thousands of years of heat and pressure, coal is a carbon-rich black rock that releases energy when burned. In the United States, roughly 30 percent of all electricity comes from coal:…

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

More than 90 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants that are required to monitor groundwater near their coal ash dumps show unsafe levels of toxic metals, according to a study released on Monday by environmental…


‘The Coal Industry Is Back,’ Trump Proclaimed. It Wasn’t.

By Eric Lipton   10/05/20  
The demise of coal-fired power plants in Arizona and Kentucky shows how the president, despite promises to restore jobs, failed to counter the forces decimating the industry.

General Electric announces No Coal Goal

By Timberly Ferree   10/05/20  
General Electric recently announced that it plans to stop making coal-fired power plants and instead focus on more renewable sources of power. This exit from the coal business could include site closings, job cuts and…

Expert: Blocked coal merger puts Wyoming at higher risk

By Dustin Bleizeffer   10/02/20  
A Tuesday U.S. District Court ruling increases the likelihood that eventual mine closures in the Powder River Basin will happen under the ownership of smaller, less financially stable operators, putting Wyoming miners and taxpayers at…

McFeely: Report blasts expensive ND project meant to save coal plant

By Mike McFeely   09/28/20  
A new report blasts North Dakota's Project Tundra, calling the proposal to capture carbon dioxide emissions at an aging coal-fired power plant in the state "high risk" and "a step in the wrong direction" while…

The world is switching to renewable energy. What does that mean for coal and gas states?

By Bradley Handler   09/28/20  
These are very challenging times for U.S. fossil fuel-producing states such as Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota. The coronavirus economic downturn has reduced energy demand, with uncertain prospects for the extent of its recovery. Meanwhile,…

“The proof is in the pudding.” Coal country responds to Democrats’ clean energy transition

By Brittany Patterson  Photo: Rebecca Kiger   08/24/20  
With the 2020 election heating up, coal community groups want residents of Appalachia to be part of the conversation as the energy transition accelerates. 

Coal country envisions paths forward in manufacturing, reclamation and renewables

By Mason Adams and Dustin Bleizeffer   08/18/20  
The blue rubber rafts shriek as they slide down steep metal rails, each guided by a crew that will soon be floating down a 9-mile stretch of river, replete with Class III, IV and V…

Life After Coal: The Decline and Rise of West Virginia Coal Country

By Eric Scheuch  Photo: Kartografia/Flickr CC   08/07/20  
Areas formerly reliant on fossil fuel extraction can reinvent themselves and remain relevant in a decarbonizing economy. West Virginia shows that ignoring the need for that transition for too long results in unnecessary pain.

Solar firm buying land rights near coal plants with eye toward transmission

By Karen Uhlenhuth  Photo: Steven Baltakatei Sandoval / Wikimedia Commons   07/14/20  
As coal plants retire, they leave behind power lines and grid connections that can be a big asset to renewable developers.

Thousands of coal workers lost jobs. Where will they go?

By Arianna Skibell / Energywire  Photo: Claudine Hellmuth / E&E News (illustration) / Cyndy Sims Parr / Wikipedia; ©b3d_ / Flickr   06/25/20  
As the long-shrinking coal industry hemorrhages jobs, states and local groups are seeking new ways to transition to a lower-carbon economy without leaving coal workers behind.

Murray Energy bankruptcy still casts shadow on coal’s economic viability

By Kathiann M. Kowalski  Photo: Wikimedia Commons   06/15/20  
Latest developments don’t resolve ongoing market problems for coal.

Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years

By Oliver Milman  Photo: Susan Montoya Bryan/AP   06/03/20  
‘We are seeing the end of coal,’ says analyst as energy source with biggest impact on climate crisis falls for sixth year in a rowSolar, wind and other renewable sources have toppled coal in energy…

U.S. Consumed More Renewables Than Coal for First Time in 134 Years

By Katherine Blunt   05/28/20  
The U.S. consumed more renewable energy than coal last year for the first time since 1885, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The coal industry was already struggling. Now it’s getting hammered by coronavirus

By Reid Frazier   04/27/20  
Businesses have shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19, and as a result, electricity use is down. That has hurt coal in particular....

This coal company with ties to the Trump administration just got a $10 million small-business loan

By Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin  Photo: Getty Images/iStock   04/21/20  
A coal company based in Indiana received $10 million from a federal loan program intended to rescue faltering small businesses from the economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Weak lungs and small spaces: Coal miners face heightened risk as essential workers during COVID-19

By Connor James   04/10/20  
The latest data from the CDC shows that roughly one in five miners, or 20 percent of all miners, in Central Appalachia have black lung. ...

Coal exit will benefit health, wealth and nature

By Tim Radford   03/30/20  
Human economies still depend on hydrocarbon fuels. But there are ways to achieve a coal exit, cut emissions and protect health.

4 astonishing signs of coal’s declining economic viability

By David Roberts   03/14/20  
Going ... going ... | Shutterstock Coal is now a loser around the world. There has been no more dramatic story in the world of energy over the last 20 years than the rise and…

Coal plants increasingly operate as cyclical, load-following power, leading to inefficiencies, costs: NARUC

By Catherine Morehouse  Photo: Rachel Cernansky   01/29/20  
Coal plants are increasingly operating as cyclical or load-following generation units, as the power market becomes more saturated with intermittent resources, according to a Jan. 24 whitepaper from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).

Indiana Bill Would Make it Harder to Close Coal Plants

By Dan Gearino  Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images   01/29/20  
If the bill passes, Indiana would become the third in the U.S. to pass a law aimed at combating market forces that make renewables and natural gas cheaper than coal.

Five states raise alarms about EPA coal-fired power plant waste disposal proposal

By Rachel Frazin  Photo by Getty Images   01/22/20  
Attorneys general from five states have raised objections to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rollback of Obama-era regulations that stipulate how coal-fired power plants dispose of waste containing arsenic, lead and mercury.

Report: Shakiest coal companies have most mine cleanup left

By Andrew Graham  Photo by Andrew Graham   01/21/20  
Wyoming’s shakiest coal operators have the biggest outstanding reclamation obligations, according to a new report — just one indication, the authors say, that declining coal markets could overwhelm the system designed to ensure mining companies…

Adani′s coal mine plans, and why coal is still so lucrative

Siemens' support for Adani's coal mine in Australia has outraged environmentalists, but it's not a unique case. Hundreds of companies and countries around the world are...

‘I’ve Quit Drinking the Water’: What It’s Like to Live Next to America’s Largest Coal Plant

By Max Blau  Photo by Max Blau and Ricky Kresslein   01/18/20  
A Georgia town welcomed America’s largest coal plant. Now, residents worry it’s contaminating their water.

Energy regulator’s order could boost coal over renewables, raising costs for consumers

The only Democrat on the commission called FERC's move 'illegal, illogical and truly bad public policy.'

Study shows surface coal miners are exposed to toxic dust that causes black lung

Appalachian coal miners at surface mines are consistently overexposed to the toxic silica dust linked to black lung, according to new research from NIOSH.

A coal baron funded climate denial as his company spiraled into bankruptcy

Robert E. Murray, the former chairman of Murray Energy, gave nearly $1 million to climate denial groups and other organizations seeking to undo environmental regulations.

How coal country becomes solar country

In one Colorado county, solar-energy-training classes are helping ease the transition from fossil fuels to renewables....

After the Murray Energy bankruptcy, what’s the future of coal?

An industry that once employed hundreds of thousands now has about 50,000 workers. Eight coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the last year....

China is still building an insane number of new coal plants

While the rest of the world turns away from the fossil fuel, China is investing big in coal-powered electricity....

Coal Knew, Too

A newly unearthed journal from 1966 shows the coal industry, like the oil industry, was long aware of the threat of climate change. ...

Bob Murray: The last coal baron?

Is the age of the coal baron over?...

Trump administration eases Obama-era rules on coal pollution

By Somini Sengupta, Jacqueline Williams and Aruna Chandrasekhar  Photo: J. David Ake / Associated Press   11/04/19  
The vast, untapped coal reserve in northeastern Australia had for years been the object of desire for the Indian industrial giant Adani.

EPA to roll back rules to control toxic ash from coal plants

The Trump administration is expected today to roll back rules designed to limit emissions of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury from coal-fired power plants....

Ohio-based coal giant Murray Energy declares bankruptcy

Murray Energy, the nation's largest underground coal mining company, became the ninth coal company to go bankrupt during the Trump administration.

California ditched coal. The gas company is worried it’s next

By Sammy Roth  Photo: Owen Michael Baker   10/22/19  
Every day, millions of Californians burn a planet-warming fossil fuel to cook dinner, stay warm or take a hot shower. Persuading people to stop using that fuel, natural gas, is shaping up to be the…

As solar and wind become cheaper, japan faces billions in stranded coal assets

The decreasing costs of solar and wind energy could generate $71 billion in stranded coal assets in Japan by 2025, according to a new report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a financial think tank, and…

Pendley’s Reagan years: Leasing zeal spurs coal ‘fire sale’

As the Reagan administration planned its first Powder River Basin coal sale, William Perry Pendley pushed for the "highest possible level of leasing." Writing for the Interior Department's energy and minerals office, he declared, "'Excess'…

Coal ash pollution: North Carolina mom digs into possible cancer cause

I was going to accept my daughter's thyroid cancer diagnosis as just the cards we were dealt, but I realized things were not normal in my hometown....

First major U.S. insurance company to stop insuring and investing in coal

By Elana Sulakshana   09/11/19  
We may not immediately consider insurance as a key driver of climate change, but insurance companies provide a crucial service to dangerous fossil fuel projects. But now, that may be changing. Earlier this summer, Chubb,…

The fall of coal and its pollution-linked deaths is boosting the economy

Farming now produces more particulate pollution than electricity generation....

Inside New Mexico’s fight to stop using coal

Securitization. It sounds complex, technical and tedious. Perhaps a topic for a banking conference or the mortgage industry. In a newspaper article, it certainly runs the risk of making readers’ eyes glaze over. But wait,…

Navajo Nation doubles down on coal. Will it work?

The Navajo Transitional Energy Co. is expected to take over three massive mines in Montana and Wyoming in October, becoming the nation's third-largest coal company. The move could give a financial boost to the tribe,…

Germany to spend up to $44 billion to cushion coal exit

Germany's Cabinet has approved a plan to spend up to 40 billion euros ($44.4 billion) by 2038 to cushion the impact on coal-mining regions of abandoning the fossil fuel.

Sick and dying workers demand help after cleaning coal ash

A backlash is growing against the Tennessee Valley Authority over the nation's worst coal ash spill a decade ago, as cleanup workers say they have contracted cancers and lung diseases.

How One Billionaire Could Keep Three Countries Hooked on Coal for Decades

By Somini Sengupta, Jacqueline Williams and Aruna Chandrasekhar   08/15/19  
The vast, untapped coal reserve in northeastern Australia had for years been the object of desire for the Indian industrial giant Adani.

21 states sue Trump administration over new coal rules

A coalition of 21 Democratic-led states sued the Trump administration Tuesday over its decision to ease restrictions on coal-fired power plants, with California's governor saying the president is trying to rescue an outdated industry....

The next coal war? Industry versus its customers

Coal producers have declared a 'battleground' in the Midwest that is pitting them against their former allies, the utilities. ...

Ohio Governor signs coal and nuclear bailout at expense of renewable energy

Opponents fear the law will send the growing wind and solar industry to neighboring states while Ohio homeowners are stuck boosting old, uneconomical power plants....