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…


Columbia | SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy | Coal Communities Face Risk of Fiscal Collapse

By Adele Morris   07/15/19  
The coal industry continues to tumble in the U.S. as electric power plants turn increasingly to natural gas and renewable energy as their fuels of choice. And that decline might only worsen for coal mining…

For First Time, Renewables Surpass Coal in U.S. Power Mix

By Chris Martin and Nic Querolo   06/26/19  
For the clearest sign yet that renewable energy has gone mainstream, consider this: Clean-energy resources supplied more of America’s electricity than coal for the first time ever in April.

As Trump attempts to prop up the struggling coal industry, Illinois is taking another step away from its dirtiest source of electricity

Under a deal brokered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, the Texas-based owner of eight coal-fired power plants in central and southern Illinois agreed last week to shutter 40% of its fleet by the end of…

Despite Trump Talk, Coal Continues Fade to Black

Chicago Tribune: As President Donald Trump attempts to prop up the nation’s dwindling coal industry, Illinois is taking another step away from its dirtiest source of electricity. Under a deal brokered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration,…

A weekend of historical climate protests in Germany’s coal region

It’s going to be a big weekend for Germany’s climate justice movement. In the heart of the Rhineland coal mining region, thousands of people from all over Europe are going to take to the streets…

E.P.A. Finalizes Its Plan to Replace Obama-Era Climate Rules

By Lisa Friedman   06/19/19  
The Trump administration on Wednesday replaced former President Barack Obama’s effort to reduce planet-warming pollution from coal plants with a new rule that would keep plants open longer and undercut progress on reducing carbon emissions.

It’s time to get more ambitious – it’s time to move Beyond Carbon

Bloomberg Philanthropies   06/07/19  
Mike, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Climate Action, launched Beyond Carbon, the largest coordinated campaign to tackle climate change ever undertaken in the United States. With a $500 million investment — the largest…

Michael Bloomberg Promises $500 Million to Help End Coal

By Lisa Friedman  Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press   06/06/19  
Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, said on Friday he would donate $500 million to a new campaign to close every coal-fired power plant in the United States and halt the…

Britain in two-week coal-free record

By BBC News Services  Photo by PA Images UK   06/05/19  
Britain has not used coal to generate electricity for two weeks - the longest period since the 1880s.

Natural Gas Now Beats Coal, Even in West Virginia

By Justin Fox   05/24/19  
The famously coal-centric state is in the midst of a gas-drilling boom but seems ambivalent about it. Wouldn’t you be?

A major US utility is closing its coal-fired power plants a decade early

One of the United States' largest utilities, Xcel Energy Inc., announced it will close its remaining coal-fired power plants in the Upper Midwest a decade ahead of schedule.

Open Letter From A Redneck Who Believes in Climate Crisis

By Holly Hearn  Photo by David Mark   05/22/19  
Dear Democratic Presidential Hopeful, First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking time to read this. I know you’ve got a busy schedule of filling the coffers and highlighting how much you aren’t…

Indiana utilities are in midst of identity crisis as customers take power into own hands

By Emily Hopkins and Sarah Bowman   05/20/19  
Coal companies still wield significant political power in Indiana, and they're pushing utilities to stick to coal, arguing that Trump's deregulation will make the fossil fuel cheaper. But even in the Trump era, the utilities…

Researchers Say Even In Kentucky, There’s A Path To A Carbon-Free Future

By Ryan Van Velzer   05/20/19  
At least two coal-fired power plants are expected to close in Kentucky this year and another two are expected to close in 2020. With each retirement, residents will have to decide how they want to…

With coal’s dominance in Missouri, prospects of clean energy transition remain uncertain

By Bryce Gray   05/20/19  
History shows that technological change can occur not just in gradual sweeps but in dramatic, accelerating bursts.

In Illinois, Cars And Trucks Top Coal As Biggest Global Warming Contributor

By Brett Chase   05/19/19  
Suburban drivers, Amazon deliveries and Uber rides are now the bigger source of greenhouse gases, presenting a new challenge for policy.

Renewables generated more electricity than coal for the first time in US history

By Michael J. Coren  REUTERS/Phil Noble   05/02/19  
In April, renewables eclipsed coal generation in the US for the first time. The Energy Information Administration estimates renewables outperformed coal by 16% in April and will generate 1.4% more in May.

Federal judge blocks potential path to viability for 2.3 GW Navajo coal plant

By Iulia Gheorghiu   04/03/19  
On Sunday, an Arizona federal judge granted a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that sought to force a state water agency to buy coal-fired electricity.

Global energy demand grew at the fastest pace this decade in 2018, leading to record coal plant emissions

By Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis   03/25/19  
A report from the International Energy Agency found that not only are carbon dioxide emissions still increasing, but that the world’s growing thirst for energy has led to higher emissions from coal-fired power plants than…

Navajo Nation votes to end efforts to purchase coal-fired power plant, sealing its fate

By Ryan Randazzo and Noel Lyn Smith   03/22/19  
The facility in northern Arizona has been the center of environmental debate for decades. Here's what to know about the plant.

Coal’s Poisonous Legacy: Groundwater Contaminated by Coal Ash Across the U.S.

By Prof. Kevin Reed and Ph.D. Alyssa Stansfield   03/04/19  
An examination of industry data available for the first time concludes that 91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants. The study by the…

It polluted N.J. for years. Now Murphy wants to convert coal plant to wind.

By S.P. Sullivan and Michael Sol Warren   02/28/19  
The owners of an aging coal-fired power plant in southern New Jersey have abandoned plans to convert it to a natural gas facility amid a contentious legal fight over the pipeline that would feed it.

Citizens’ Climate Radio Ep. 32: Coal miners speak out

Citizens’ Climate Radio Ep. 32: Coal miners speak out Citizens’ Climate Radio is a monthly podcast hosted by CCL volunteer Peterson Toscano. Browse all our past episode recaps here, or listen to past episodes here,…

Germany to close all 84 of its coal-fired power plants, will rely primarily on renewable energy

By Erik Kirschbaum  Photo: Patrick Pleul / AP   01/26/19  
Germany, one of the world’s biggest consumers of coal, will shut down all 84 of its coal-fired power plants over the next 19 years to meet its international commitments in the fight against climate change,…

Closing Colorado Coal Would Save $2.5 Billion. A New Proposal Could Unlock The Coal-To-Clean Shift

By Silvio Marcacci   01/09/19  
Coal-fired generation is on the way out in America’s electricity sector, pushed further and further from profitability by clean energy economics. This dynamic is perhaps most visible in the Western United States – new research…

A Global Climate Summit Is Surrounded by All Things Coal

By Shannon Osaka   12/06/18  
This week's COP24 climate talks in Katowice, Poland, are taking place in a region that is not at all prepared to quit its coal addiction.

The World Needs to Quit Coal. Why Is It So Hard?

By Somini Sengupta   11/24/18  
Coal, the most polluting of energy sources, shows no sign of disappearing three years after the Paris agreement, when world leaders promised decisive action against global warming.

US on pace for record coal retirement in 2018

By Gavin Bade   10/30/18  
The IEEFA report highlights the accelerating trend of coal plant retirements, but also illustrates just how much of the carbon-heavy resource is still left on U.S. power grids. The U.S. will retire more than 36…

Millions of unwitting Americans paying $1 billion more for dirty coal energy each year when cleaner, cheaper sources available

By Jon Queally   09/26/18  
Millions of U.S. energy consumers across multiple are unwittingly propping up a coal industry by paying more than $1 billion annually over recent years for dirty energy that renewable sources could have provided at much…

Florence’s Floodwaters Breach Coal Ash Pond and Imperil Other Toxic Sites

By Kendra Pierre-Louis, Nadja Popovich and Hiroko Tabuchi   09/24/18  
Surging floodwaters from Florence and its torrential rains, which experts link at least in part to climate change, have released coal ash – a byproduct of coal burning that contains mercury, arsenic and other toxic…

It Took This Coal Miner 14 Years To Secure Black Lung Benefits. How Come?

By Lathan Gourmas   09/17/17  
Bethel Brock, a soft-spoken 77-year-old, has black lung disease from decades working in the coal fields of Virginia. Despite the federal Black Lung Benefits Act, it has taken him 14 years of battling the Westmoreland…