In the United States, coal production is synonymous with the rise of the nation as an industrial giant in the early 20th century, especially as a driver of steel production, electricity generation, and job creation. Coal also has a devastating, environmental and human health legacy, including lung disease in miners, degraded landscapes, abandoned mines, acidified streams and precipitation, and various air pollutants including greenhouse gases.
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The story of coal begins in the Appalachian region, notably in Pennsylvania. Coal mining began in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s to support the colonial iron industry. By the early 1800s, Pennsylvania coal was fueling the industrial growth of the entire country and was the primary fuel source for western Pennsylvania’s growing steel industry.1 Throughout the early 20th century, the expansion of the railroad system supported the rapid exploitation of the Appalachian region’s rich coal resources in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. Appalachian states have produced 54% of all coal extracted since 1800. Pennsylvania alone accounts for 1/5 of the nation’s output to date.
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The development of the nation’s rail network enabled coal production to expand into the Midwest in the mid-nineteenth century. Like other coal-producing states, place names across Illinois like Coal City, Carbondale, Diamond, Carbon Hill, Carbon Cliff, and Glen Carbon point to the town’s original purpose.2 Thirty counties in Ohio were mining coal by 1870. Ohio became a leading producer and consumer of coal, triggered by the manufacture of equipment for railroads and farms, supplies for the Civil War, and as a cheap fuel for steam power generation.3 Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana together have produced 16 percent of the nation’s coal through 2022.
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Commercial-scale coal production west of the Mississippi River emerged in the late nineteenth century, largely in Texas, Montana, Colorado, Utah, North Dakota, New Mexico, and Wyoming. The Powder River Basin coal fields in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming are among the most prolific in the world, and by far they produce more coal than any other region in the United States. Wyoming has been the top coal-producing state in the United States since 1986. In 2022, Wyoming’s coal mines accounted for 41 percent of national coal production. Two of Wyoming’s coal mines–the North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder mines–produce one-fifth of the nation’s total.
The quantity of coal produced and its share of primary energy in the United States has declined precipitously over the last several decades. New, abundant supplies of cheap natural gas and dramatic cost reductions in wind and solar power have made coal non-competitive in the electric power market. Some states have adopted aggressive climate action plans that require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in electric power generation. The result is that new coal plants are not being built and retirements are on the rise from an aging fleet of power plants.
1 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Coal Mining in Pennsylvania,” Link
2 Abagail Bobrow, “Built on Coal,” University of Illinois, October 4, 2021. https://storied.illinois.edu/built-on-coal/#!
3 Douglas L. Crowell, “History of the coal-mining industry in Ohio,” Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological Survey, 1995, http://hdl.handle.net/1811/78539