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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Electricity from coal plants has risen by 9% this year to fuel economic recovery from Covid, says watchdog.
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What could finally stop new coal plants? Pulling the plug on their insurance.

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By Jillian Ambrose   09/14/21  
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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,…
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Renewables Are Fast Replacing Coal, Except in Rural America

By Katherine Blunt   08/08/21  
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The Biden Administration Won’t Explain Its Handout To Big Coal

By Chris D'Angelo   08/03/21  
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…
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Just 5% of power plants are responsible for 73% of electricity emissions

By Adele Peters   08/02/21  
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…
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​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.
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U.S. EPA to tighten requirements on toxic waste from coal plants

By Valerie Volcovici and Jan Wolfe   07/27/21  
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Coal Shows Its Staying Power as Economies Bounce Back

By Sarah Mcfarlane and Katherine Blunt   07/07/21  
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.
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Justices deny Wyoming, Montana coal suit against Washington

By Mead Gruver   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.…
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Half of China-Backed Overseas Coal Projects Shelved

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

By Julian Spector   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…
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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…
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G7 nations vow to phase out international financing for coal projects

By Brady Dennis   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.
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Richest nations agree to end support for coal production overseas

By Fiona Harvey   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…
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UMWA Seeks Foothold for Coal in the Green Hydrogen Economy

By Tina Casey   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…
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