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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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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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

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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.

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

By Brittany Patterson   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. 
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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…
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Life After Coal: The Decline and Rise of West Virginia Coal Country

By Eric Scheuch   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.
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Solar firm buying land rights near coal plants with eye toward transmission

By Karen Uhlenhuth   07/14/20  
As coal plants retire, they leave behind power lines and grid connections that can be a big asset to renewable developers.
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Thousands of coal workers lost jobs. Where will they go?

By Arianna Skibell / Energywire   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.
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Murray Energy bankruptcy still casts shadow on coal’s economic viability

By Kathiann M. Kowalski   06/15/20  
Latest developments don’t resolve ongoing market problems for coal.
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Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years

By Oliver Milman   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…
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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.
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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....
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This coal company with ties to the Trump administration just got a $10 million small-business loan

By Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin   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.
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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. ...
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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.
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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…
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Coal plants increasingly operate as cyclical, load-following power, leading to inefficiencies, costs: NARUC

By Catherine Morehouse   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).
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Indiana Bill Would Make it Harder to Close Coal Plants

By Dan Gearino   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.
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Five states raise alarms about EPA coal-fired power plant waste disposal proposal

By Rachel Frazin   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.
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Report: Shakiest coal companies have most mine cleanup left

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

By Max Blau   01/18/20  
A Georgia town welcomed America’s largest coal plant. Now, residents worry it’s contaminating their water.
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Trump administration eases Obama-era rules on coal pollution

By Somini Sengupta, Jacqueline Williams and Aruna Chandrasekhar   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.
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California ditched coal. The gas company is worried it’s next

By Sammy Roth   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…
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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,…
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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.
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