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Coal explained Coal and the environment

Coal is an abundant fuel source that is relatively inexpensive to produce and convert to useful energy. However, producing and using coal affects the environment.

Effects of coal mining

Surface mines (sometimes called strip mines) were the source of about 63% of the coal mined in the United States in 2022. These mining operations remove the soil and rock above coal deposits, or seams. The largest surface mines in the United States are in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where coal deposits are close to the surface and are up to 70 feet thick.

Mountaintop removal and valley fill mining has affected large areas of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and Kentucky. This type of coal extraction involves removing the tops of mountains with explosives. This technique changes the landscape, and streams are sometimes covered with rock and dirt. The water draining from these filled valleys may contain pollutants that can harm aquatic wildlife downstream. Although mountaintop mining has existed since the 1970s, its use became more widespread and controversial beginning in the 1990s.

U.S. laws require that dust and water runoff from areas affected by coal mining operations must be controlled, and the area must be reclaimed , or returned, close to its original condition.

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Some electric power plants use scrubbers (flue gas desulfurization equipment) to reduce the amount of sulfur exiting their smokestacks. Power plants use electrostatic precipitators or baghouses to remove particulates and heavy metals from the smoke.

Underground mines generally affect the landscape less than surface mines. However, the ground above mine tunnels can collapse, and acidic water can drain from abandoned underground mines.

Methane gas that occurs in coal deposits can explode if the gas becomes concentrated in underground mines. This coalbed methane must be vented out of mines to make mines safer places to work. In 2021, methane emissions from active and abandoned coal mines accounted for about 7% of total U.S. methane emissions and about 1% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (based on global warming potential). Some mines capture and use or sell the coalbed methane extracted from mines.

Emissions from burning coal

Several principal emissions result from burning coal :

  • Sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses
  • Nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog and respiratory illnesses
  • Particulates, which contribute to smog, haze, respiratory illnesses, and lung disease
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the primary greenhouse gas produced from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas)
  • Mercury and other heavy metals, which have been linked to both neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals
  • Fly ash and bottom ash, which are residues created when power plants burn coal

In 2022, CO2 emissions from burning coal for energy accounted for about 19% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions and for about 55% of total CO2 emissions from the electric power sector.

U.S. air pollution laws now require most fly ash emissions to be captured by pollution-control devices. In the United States, fly ash and bottom ash are generally stored near power plants or placed in landfills. Some environmental concerns include pollution that leaches into the ground from coal ash storage and from landfills and then contaminates groundwater. Coal ash impoundment ruptures can damage the environment downstream of the impoundment.

Reducing the environmental effects of coal use

The Clean Air Act and The Clean Water Act require industries to reduce pollutants released into the air and water.

The coal industry has found several ways to reduce sulfur and other impurities from coal. The industry has also found more effective ways of cleaning coal after it is mined, and some coal consumers use low-sulfur coal.

Power plants use flue gas desulfurization equipment, also known as scrubbers, to clean sulfur from the smoke before it leaves their smokestacks. In addition, the coal industry and the U.S. government have cooperated to develop technologies that can remove impurities from coal or that can make coal more energy efficient, which reduces the amount of coal that is burned per unit of useful energy produced.

Equipment intended mainly to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter can also be used to reduce mercury emissions from some types of coal. Scientists are also working on new ways to reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants.

Research is underway to address emissions of CO2 from burning coal. One method is carbon capture, which separates CO2 from emissions sources and recovers it in a concentrated stream. The CO2 can then be injected underground for permanent storage, or sequestration.

Reusing and recycling waste produced from burning coal can also reduce the environmental effects of coal production and consumption. Land that was previously used for coal mining can be reclaimed and used for airports, landfills, and golf courses. Waste products captured by scrubbers can be used to produce products such as cement and synthetic gypsum for wallboard.

Last updated: April 17, 2024.