Coal industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An important component of American industrial development since the early nineteenth century, coal has provided energy to industry and remained a major source of electrical power into the early twenty-first century. Coal mining has provided numerous jobs, and it served to spur railroad construction during the late nineteenth century, while persistent health and safety concerns for mine workers have placed the industry at the heart of the labor and regulation movements.

Coal has been mined in the United States since the colonial era. Early coal mines, primarily in Pennsylvania, were usually surface mines or shallow underground mines. Beginning during the 1840’s, underground mines became more common in Pennsylvania and later in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Underground mining continues to be a major form of mining in the eastern United States. During the mid-twentieth century, surface mining developed as a major extraction technique in all parts of the country. In Western states such as Wyoming, massive equipment is used to remove both the surface and the coal. Particularly in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, a surface mining technique known as mountaintop removal has been deployed. In this technique, explosive charges blow the tops off hills into nearby valleys to make coal accessible to mining.Coal industry

By the late twentieth century, the Electric power industryelectric power industry consumed most of the coal mined in the United States. Because the United States has large coal reserves, coal could continue to provide energy well into the future. Coal mining and burning produce several forms of environmental pollution, however. One potential innovation has been seen in efforts to liquefy coal or turn it into a gas. Gasified coal would serve as a supplement to petroleum, as well as burning more cleanly than does solid coal. These projects are very high-cost, however, and synthesized coal liquids remain uneconomic, although increases in the price of crude oil may motivate additional research.

Coal and the Environment

Coal miners prepare for descent into a mine at Hazelton, Pennsylvania, in 1905.

(Library of Congress)

The four basic types of coal, classified by their carbon content, are lignite (about 60 percent carbon), sub-bituminous (60-85 percent carbon), bituminous (about 85 percent carbon), and anthracite (almost pure carbon). Much of the early coal that was mined was anthracite, but by the late twentieth century most of the coal mined in the United States was lignite or bituminous coal. Coal contains various sorts of impurities, such as sulfur, nitrogen compounds, and some heavy metals. Lignite and sub-bituminous coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming have a lower heat content than does bituminous coal from Eastern states, but they also have a lower sulfur content, creating fewer environmental problems when burned. Many power plants turned to Western coal during the late twentieth century because of its low cost and low sulfur content.

Burning coal produces several forms of Environment;airenvironmental pollution, such as acid rain from the sulfur and nitrogen in the coal. It also produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Environmental regulations have led coal-fired power plants to adopt several technological innovations in an attempt to reduce emissions, as well as causing many plants to turn to low-sulfur coal. Although the coal industry has been critical of environmental regulation, claiming that regulations increase its costs, environmental regulators have tried to take into account the true cost of burning coal. Pollution that results from burning coal in an electric power plant, such as acid rain, is often imposed on people other than the consumers of the plant’s electricity, making simple market self-regulation unlikely. Environmental standards attempt to capture the true societal cost of burning coal, as well as to decrease environmental hazards.

Coal mining itself produces several costs that the mining industry often ignores. Safety, worker;mining industryUnderground mining has always been dangerous work, although innovations such as water-jet mining have somewhat reduced the danger to miners. When they are abandoned after their coal is extracted, underground mines may collapse, causing the surface to subside. Surface mining requires the disposal of the overburden to get at the coal. This material is usually dumped in nearby valleys, damaging water courses and creating pollution from the runoff of surface water. Mountaintop removal often creates hazards for nearby residents, as well as causing water pollution.

Employment in the Coal Industry

Employment in the coal industry peaked during the 1940’s and has been in decline ever since. Increased use of technology has increased productivity in underground mines, requiring fewer workers, and surface mining also requires few workers. From 1973 to 2003, coal production nearly doubled. Underground production increased only slightly, with most of the increase coming from surface mines, particularly in the West. In 1950, underground mining accounted for 75 percent of the 560.4 tons of coal mined in the United States, but in 2003 underground mining accounted for only 33 percent of the 1,072 tons of coal production. In 1973, the coal industry employed 152,000 workers nationwide, with 73 percent in underground mines. In 2003, the coal industry employed 71,000 workers, with 56 percent in underground mines. Over that period, employment in Western mines more than doubled, as more mining was done in surface mines in the West. Nonetheless, in some communities in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, coal mining continues to be the major source of employment.

Coal continues to be a major energy source in the United States despite its numerous environmental risks. The continuing push for clean energy will probably lead to a decline in the coal industry in the United States, but this decline is likely to be gradual, as coal continues to be a cheap alternative to oil as an energy source.

Further Reading
  • Arnold, Barbara J., Mark S. Kilima, and Peter J. Bethell. Designing the Coal Preparation Plant of the Future. New York: Society for Mining Metallurgy and Exploration, 2007. Examines advances in producing “clean coal.”
  • Goodell, Jeff. Big Coal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Excellent analysis of the role of coal in American industry and its environmental impact.
  • Lockard, Duane. Coal. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Good analysis of the human impact of the coal industry.
  • Logan, Michale, ed. Coal. New York: Greenhaven, 2007. Compilation of various short pieces presenting opposing viewpoints regarding the coal industry.
  • Shnayerson, Michael. Coal River. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008. Deals with the coal industry’s use of mountaintop removal and the environmental problems generated by the process.
  • Smil, Vaclav. Energy at the Crossroads. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. Places coal use in the larger context of global energy policies.

Coal strike of 1902

U.S. Department of Energy

Energy crisis of 1979

Mineral resources

Nuclear power industry

Petroleum industry

Public utilities

United Mine Workers of America

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