Topic: Coal Mining

Coal is a sedimentary rock made from dead plants and animals that have built up over thousands of years under pressure and heat. Known primarily for its status as a fossil fuel, coal is mainly used as a source of heat and electricity. In contrast to renewable energy sources like sun, wind, and water, coal is a nonrenewable resource that could eventually be depleted.

Coal seams have been found on every continent, but the largest coal reserves are in the U.S., Russia, China, Australia, and India. According to Hilt’s Law, the farther underground the coal is, the more carbon it will contain. If the coal is less than 61 meters (~200 feet) deep, then it can be mined at the surface; otherwise, it is mined underground.

There are three common forms of surface mining: strip mining, open-pit mining, and mountaintop removal (MTR) mining. All forms involve tearing up the ground above the coal and then removing the coal seam below it. This is typically a quicker process compared to underground mining, making surface mining the cheaper option. However, surface mining can have severe impacts on the environment. It can destroy landscapes, cause landslides and subsidence, and allow harmful elements to seep into the air, aquifers, and water tables.

Underground mining methods include longwall mining, room-and-pillar mining, and retreat mining. This coal is more valuable, but its retrieval is more costly since it requires more digging and more machines. It is also much more dangerous. The mines can explode and leave behind toxic residue that can pollute local water supplies. Miners in underground mines also face the risks of suffocation, toxic gas exposure, and black lung disease (which is caused by excessive coal dust inhalation).

Although the use of coal as a heat source be traced all the way back to the first century, its full potential for energy generation was not realized until the Industrial Revolution. In 1769, James Watt invented the steam engine, which used coal to power machines that were used for mass production, generating energy, and fueling ships and trains. Coal is also used in the steel industry to help heat and purify steel so that it can be stronger and more flexible. As of February 2023, the U.S. relies on coal for 19.5% of its energy. Burning coal can have negative effects. The burning of coal releases carbon dioxide (which is the greenhouse gas most responsible for ocean acidificationclimate change, and global warming), sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (which can lead to acid rain, smog, and respiratory illness), mercury (which is toxic when added to water), and fly ash (which can pollute the environment and lead to major health risks).

©2024 ClimateLit (Hannah Hein)


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by Amy Allgeyer

“I nod, but my mind’s fixed on something else—something abnormal in the valley. Something that might be causing all those health problems. And that something is bright orange.”