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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How Joe Manchin Aided Coal, and Earned Millions

By Christopher Flavelle and Julie Tate   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.
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‘Last Gasp for Coal’ Saw Illinois Plants Crank up Emission-Spewing Production Last Year

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

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

By Phil McKenna   03/15/22  
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Coal helped drive energy-related CO2 emissions to a record high last year, research says

By Anmar Frangoul   03/09/22  
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In Virginia, abandoned coal mines are transformed into solar farms

By Zoeann Murphy   03/03/22  
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US coal use on the rise, but renewables continue rapid growth

By Karin Kirk   02/25/22  
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DOE will build nation’s first large-scale facility to turn fossil fuel waste into rare materials for tech

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EPA nears deal with Wyo. over massive coal plant

By Benjamin Storrow   02/07/22  
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The environmental case for buying a coal mine

By Richard Fisher   01/19/22  
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How coal holds on in America

By Joshua Partlow   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.
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The Biden Administration Takes Action on Toxic Coal Ash Waste

By James Bruggers   01/12/22  
The Biden administration on Tuesday took its first significant move toward corralling lingering and widespread problems with the toxic ash produced by coal-fired power plants, one of the nation’s most prominent long-term environmental health legacies…
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Black Farmers Are Rebuilding Agriculture in Coal Country

By Natalie Peart   01/10/22  
While most people associate West Virginia with coal mining, the hills and valleys are also suited for agriculture. And as coal production wanes, farmers are seeing growing opportunities to expand their sector.
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Coal and trucks pushed US ‘further off track’ for climate targets in 2021

By Josh Gabbatiss   01/10/22  
US emissions surged by 6.2% last year, boosted by a renewed reliance on coal power amid soaring natural gas prices, according to the Rhodium Group. After falling sharply in 2020 due to the economic impact…
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Opinion: West Virginia’s coal miners just made Joe Manchin’s life a lot harder

By Greg Sargent   01/10/22  
For months, Sen. Joe Manchin III has sold his opposition to the Build Back Better proposal as driven uniformly by a brave and hardheaded assessment of the national interest. He has warned that BBB will…
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Coal plant explosion should be a wake-up call

By Baltimore Sun Editorial Board   01/03/22  
Late Thursday morning, an explosion in Curtis Bay rattled buildings, broke windows and likely frayed some nerves. A buildup of coal dust at the CSX Coal Plant Building was blamed for the blast, which could…
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The world generated more power from coal in 2021 than ever before

By Amy Gunia   12/18/21  
The amount of electricity generated from coal is expected to hit an all-time high this year, as electricity demand outpaces low-carbon supply options, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). That means that the world’s…
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Global demand for coal could hit all-time high in 2022

By Jillian Ambrose   12/16/21  
Electricity from coal plants has risen by 9% this year to fuel economic recovery from Covid, says watchdog.
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Campaign to shut down New England’s last coal plant is doing ‘what must be done’ for the planet

By Arnie Alpert   11/17/21  
There’s one form of power that’s generated when hot water turns turbines to create electricity. There are other forms of power held by investors, property owners and regulatory agencies.
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1 big thing: The long road to phasing down coal

By Ben Geman and Andrew Freedman   11/17/21  
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…
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Where electric cars could help save coal

By Will Englund   11/09/21  
Disdain for electric cars runs deep in this state. In the Bakken oil fields, which have brought enormous riches to North Dakota, workers fume at them on Facebook discussion groups, calling them “worthless” or worse.…
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Why the U.S. Didn’t Join 40 Other Countries in Pledge to End Coal

By Benjamin Storrow   11/08/21  
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…
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