Little Rock, Big Impact

Easy to Understand

Put simply, coal is a combustible black rock found underground that is commonly used as an energy source. That’s it. Nothing else. Actually, it goes much deeper than that. Coal is the remains of prehistoric vegetation that formed hundreds of millions of years ago in a time period known as the Carboniferous Period. The energy we get from coal actually comes from the solar energy that is trapped in the prehistoric plants. Normally when plants die they release their stored energy but under certain conditions, as with coal, the energy is trapped and locked inside. These prehistoric plants are buried to great depths through the movement of the earth (tectonic plates) and experience high temperatures and pressures. Eventually the prehistoric plants undergo physical and chemical changes and form coal. Today, coal is harvested and burned to release its stored energy.

Coal is primarily used (93% in the United States) for the generation of electricity. It’s also used in many industrial applications such as cement and steel manufacturing. In fact, around 70% of total global steel production relies on coal. Around 1 billion tons of coal is used in global steel production, which is roughly 14% of total coal consumption worldwide. To put things in more perspective, there was a 72% increase in steel use worldwide between 2002 and 2012.

One quick note: Steel is 100% recyclable.

Coal is grouped into four distinct categories known as ranks that are based on the amount of sulfur and mercury content the coal contains along with its heat capabilities: anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite. The rankings are in decreasing order of heat content. Therefore, anthracite has the highest heat content followed by bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite. Around 90% of all coal mines in the U.S. are bituminous coal mines.

It’s Everywhere

The United States has more estimated recoverable coal reserves than anywhere in the world. The term coal reserve takes into account available mining technology and costs and only includes what is economically recoverable at any given time. On the other hand, coal resources include all potential coal deposits. According to the World Coal Association, coal resources are 17 times greater than coal reserves worldwide.

Coal reserves are found in almost every country, with recoverable coal reserves in nearly 80 countries. Most coal is consumed within the country it is harvested. Seventy countries actively mine coal and only 15% export coal. The top coal exporting countries are: Australia, Indonesia, Russia, USA, and South Africa.

There are 860 billion tons of coal reserves worldwide. Which means there are enough reserves to supply the world for 118 years. That’s a really long time but it’s important to note that coal accounts for over two thirds of all non-renewable energy sources.

“Coal Facts.” American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, n.d. 11 Apr. 2014.

“Energy in Brief.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, n.d. 12 Apr 2014.

“Global Availability of Coal.” World Coal Association, n.d. 12 Apr 2014

What is Coal?” World Coal Association, n.d. 12 Apr 2014

“Coal and Steel Statistics.” World Coal Association, n.d. 12 Apr 2014



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