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


Red state coal towns still power the West Coast. We can’t just let them die

By Sammy Roth 04/16/24
In the early morning light, it’s easy to mistake the towering gray mounds for an odd-looking mountain range — pale and dull and devoid of life, some pine trees and shrublands in the foreground with…
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China responsible for 95% of new coal power construction in 2023, report says

By Molly Lempriere 04/11/24
China accounted for 95% of the world’s new coal power construction activity in 2023, according to the latest annual report from Global Energy Monitor (GEM). Construction began on 70 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity in…
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The Coal Was Destined for India. Now It’s Polluting the Air in Baltimore

By Matthew Zeitlin 04/01/24
For those living near the Port of Baltimore, the transportation and storage of coal on its way from mines in the Appalachian Mountains to far-flung foreign kilns is “a mundane but ever-present imposition,” Chloe Ahmann,…
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Port of Baltimore closure shuts down No. 2 US coal export hub

By Zack Budryk 03/28/24
The closure of the Port of Baltimore due to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge could have major implications for coal exports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
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New England’s last coal plants will close by 2028

By Mara Hoplamazian 03/27/24
Merrimack Station, which is New England’s last running coal plant, will stop operating by 2028. Granite Shore Power announced the closure of the Bow, N.H. plant as part of a settlement agreement signed Wednesday, resolving…
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A ‘Gassy’ Alabama Coal Mine Was Expanding Under a Family’s Home. After an Explosion, Two Were Left Critically Injured

By Lee Hedgepeth and James Bruggers 03/15/24
He’d said he thought his home would explode. He was right. W.M. Griffice, 78, had told his granddaughter, Kenzie, in the days leading up to March 8 that he felt like his house was going…
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USA: The cost of transporting coal to the electric power sector increased in 2022

We released new data on the electric power sector’s coal transportation costs. The release incorporates final data for 2022 from Form EIA-923, which we collect from electric power plant owners and operators. The data release…
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A huge battery has replaced Hawaii’s last coal plant

By Julian Spector 01/10/24
Hawaii shut down its last coal plant on September 1, 2022, eliminating 180 megawatts of fossil-fueled baseload power from the grid on Oahu — a crucial step in the state’s first-in-the-nation commitment to cease burning…
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Coal’s Peak Is Here. But Demise of Dirtiest Fuel Will Be Slow

By Will Wade 12/15/23
Global efforts to boost clean energy and rein in carbon emissions have had a clear impact on coal: consumption of the dirtiest fossil fuel is expected to peak this year. Total consumption of coal will…
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Deaths From Coal Pollution Have Dropped, but Emissions May be Twice as Deadly

By Cara Buckley 11/23/23
Coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, is far more harmful to human health than previously thought, according to a new report, which found that coal emissions are associated with double the mortality risk compared with…
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Pollution from coal power plants contributes to far more deaths than scientists realized, study shows

By Lucas Henneman 11/23/23
Air pollution particles from coal-fired power plants are more harmful to human health than many experts realized, and it’s more than twice as likely to contribute to premature deaths as air pollution particles from other…
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Dirtiest Fuel Group Adds ‘Sustainable’ to Name in Rebranding Bid

By Sheryl Lee 11/22/23
As the world moves toward greener energy sources, an industry group for the dirtiest fossil fuel is trying to clean up its image — by adding “sustainable” to its name.
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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…


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

By Anmar Frangoul   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…
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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…
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US coal use on the rise, but renewables continue rapid growth

By Karin Kirk   02/25/22  
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…
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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…
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EPA nears deal with Wyo. over massive coal plant

By Benjamin Storrow   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…
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The environmental case for buying a coal mine

By Richard Fisher   01/19/22  
One day, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall decided to divest itself from a particularly dirty form of coal extraction in Germany, so it advertised that its mines were for sale. It would get an offer…
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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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What could finally stop new coal plants? Pulling the plug on their insurance.

By Steven Mufson   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…
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Coal-fired electricity rebounds in 2021, but resurgence could be short-lived

By Scott Van Voorhis   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.
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4 astonishing signs of coal’s declining economic viability

By David Roberts   09/16/21  
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…
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Most plans for new coal plants scrapped since Paris agreement

By Jillian Ambrose   09/14/21  
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.
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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,…
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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…
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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  
 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday said it will set stricter requirements for how coal-fired power plants dispose of wastewater full of arsenic, lead and mercury, an important step in reversing one of the…
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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

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

By Emma Penrod   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…
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The predictable economic effects of climate change have started to appear

By Philip Bump   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.
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Banks And Investors Are Still Pouring Billions Into Coal Companies

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

By Alexander C. Kaufman   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…
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The World’s Long, Messy Breakup With Coal

By Laura Paddison   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.
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Major Wyoming coal company suffers huge losses, plans to divest from thermal coal

By Camille Erickson   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.
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Wyoming’s ‘dark money’ coal campaign

By Andrew Graham   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…
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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.
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Rising water stress risk threatens US coal plants, largely clustered in 5 states

By Taylor Kuykendall   10/22/20  
Many of the nation's coal-fired power plants, often heavy consumers of water resources, are in areas projected to soon face water stress due to climate change.
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How Can We Get Rid Of Retiring Coal Plant Costs? Energy Task Force Takes A Look

By Rebecca Thiele   10/19/20  
“Because Hoosiers have to pay for new infrastructure and quickly-retired infrastructure at the same time. They’re having to bear that burden of transition," he said.
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Wyoming’s “dark money” coal campaign

By Andrew Graham   10/12/20  
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…
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Wyo criticizes utility’s plans to replace coal with renewables

By Dustin Bleizeffer   10/09/20  
Wyoming’s largest electrical provider, PacifiCorp, wants to speed up its shift from coal-fired power to renewable energy.  But its plan for achieving that vision lacks proper analysis, transparency and modeling, and doesn’t adequately consider other…
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Companies show interest in buying major N.D. coal plant

By Andy Balaskovitz   10/08/20  
Critics in Michigan say a DTE Energy executive compensation mechanism incentivizes the prolonged use of fossil fuel plants while such incentives should be linked to decarbonization.
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Ohio ratepayer advocates seek refunds for coal plant subsidies

By Andy Balaskovitz   10/06/20  
CLIMATE: A Minnesota city’s five-year climate action plan calls for swift action with measurable results, a contrast with longer-term plans adopted by many cities.
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