Coal is one of the true measures of the energy strength of the United States. One quarter of the world's coal reserves are found within the United States, and the energy content of the nation's coal resources exceeds that of the entire world's known recoverable oil. Coal is also the workhorse of the nation's electric power industry, supplying more than half the electricity consumed by Americans.


Coal is one of the United States' greatest economic resources. Critics point to coal's environmental impacts and label it a "dirty" fuel source, but how would they suggest we replace coal's enormous contribution to our electricity needs? Can you imagine the vast amount of forestland that would have to be leveled simply to replace coal for a single year? The result would be devastating to plant and animal life as well as to humans.

At the moment renewable power sources (excluding hydro-power) such as wind, solar and biomass provide us with less than one-percent of our energy. They are promising sources for supplemental electricity generation, but are not practical replacements for coal. Nuclear power has great potential to replace significant amounts of coal usage, but a new nuclear power plant hasn't been built in America in a quarter century. The public still holds an irrational fear of nuclear power, a fear that is stoked by anti-development activists. Even if these obstacles could be overcome, it would take decades to build the dozens of nuclear plants necessary to make a sizable dent in our dependence on coal. On the bright side, it may not even be necessary to attempt to wean ourselves off of coal for environmental reasons. At least two technologies (see Future section below) have the potential to greatly reduce coal's environmental impact.

CARE supports coal as a responsible energy source. The United States possesses coal in great abundance, and there is no viable replacement for coal over the next several decades, if not longer.

  • Coal is carbon plus some hydrocarbons and a minor amount of minerals.
  • It comes in four basic forms: anthracite, bituminous, sub bituminous, and lignite.
  • It's estimated that the United States has 250 years of coal supply
  • Coal generates more than half the nation's electricity
  • Virtually all projections show coal continuing to supply about half of the nation's electricity for the next 20 years.
  • More than 90% of American coal production is used in electrical generation
  • Americans use about 20 pounds of coal per day in the form of electricity
  • The US is currently a net exporter of coal
  • Each year we send 37 million tons of coal overseas—an amount equal to a unit train more than 3000 miles long!

  • In a typical plant, powdered coal is burned to boil water, converting it into high-pressure, superheated steam. The steam enters a turbine where it expands and drives the turbine's blades. The blades turn a shaft connected to a generator that creates electrical current.

  • Coal is much cheaper per BTU than oil and natural gas are
  • Coal is simple and safe to transport and store
  • US domestic coal supplies are huge—we are the “Saudi Arabia of coal” and hold more than ¼ of the world’s recoverable coal reserves.
  • Moving toward clean coal technology will allow us to better utilize this massive resource and perhaps reduce our reliance on imported oil and gas

  • Burning coal produces pollutants including: sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOX), particulate matter (PM), and carbon monoxide (CO). Coal also produces more carbon dioxide (CO2) per BTU than do other fossil fuels.
  • Even the most water-efficient 500-megawatt power plant (a "closed loop" plant) requires about 7,000 gallons of water each minute, equivalent to the content of 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools each day.
  • Most coal-fired plants are in the East near large population centers. Most low-sulfur coal deposits are located in the West, and therefore must be transported long distances by rail, truck and barge.
  • Coal can also be transported by pipeline. The coal is ground into powder, and then mixed with water to form slurry that can be pumped. However, this method requires a lot of water.
  • Surface and subsurface mining can significantly alter the landscape and pollute groundwater in strip mining.
  • Water seeping into abandoned mines may react with chemicals in the remaining coal to form acids that leach into underground aquifers and drain into rivers and lakes.
  • Unburned ash must be removed from coal-fired plants and dumped. In addition, scrubbers produce large amounts of sludge. Disposing of that sludge is another potential environmental hazard.

  • Because of the abundance of coal in the United States and the continued advancement of clean coal technology, coal will almost certainly be a primary energy source through the end of the century.
  • Coal will also be a primary fuel source for the rest of the world for the foreseeable future. It currently generates approximately 40% of the world's power.
  • Advancements in a technology called "integrated gasification combined cycle" or IGCC may make coal's future much brighter. An IGCC system turns coal into "syngas". Following a clean-up process the syngas is used to power a turbine. The end product is lots of electricity produced with far lower emissions than a conventional coal-fired plant.
  • Clean coal pilot project - FutureGen is an initiative to build the world's first integrated sequestration and hydrogen production research power plant. The $1 billion dollar project is intended to create the world's first zero-emissions fossil fuel plant. When operational, the prototype will be the cleanest fossil fuel fired power plant in the world. The prototype plant will establish the technical and economic feasibility of producing electricity and hydrogen from coal (the lowest cost and most abundant domestic energy source), while capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide generated in the process.
  • The electric industry is looking for ways to put coal ash to productive use (i.e., the ash may be mined for sulfur and trace metals).

Useful Coal Websites

  • The World Coal Institute
  • Energy for the 21st Century: Coal
  • Wyoming Coal
  • US Department of Energy Clean Coal
  • Clean Coal Technologies
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