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U.S. Coal: A Primer on Major Issues

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Publication Date: March 2003

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL31819

Topic: Energy (Coal industry)


The U.S. coal industry has gone through a number of gradual shifts in recent decades. The industry has become more concentrated, and mine productivity has improved. More low-sulfur coal and less high sulfur coal is today being produced. Less coal is exported, in part because of a strong U.S. dollar. Improved production methods, such as greater utilization of and improvements in longwall mining technology, have lowered the cost of underground mining, although surface mining continues to hold a substantial cost advantage.

The United States is well endowed with coal. The total demonstrated resource base is estimated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) at 508 billion short tons, of which about 274 billion short tons are classified as recoverable reserves. U.S. recoverable reserves are estimated at 25% of total world reserves. Production of U.S. coal reached an all-time high in 2001 at 1,121 million short tons.

Coal supplies 22% of the nation's energy demand but 52% of its electricity needs. EIA forecasts coal to fall to 47% of the U.S. electricity market by 2025 because of increased competition from natural gas. About 1,063 million short tons of coal were consumed in the United States in 2001, 90% of which was used in the electric power sector. Currently, railroads move about 65% of all coal, barges transport about 15%, and trucks about 11%.

State agencies play a large role in regulating the coal industry, often exercising authority delegated by federal agencies pursuant to federal environmental and safety laws. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) established the bulk of the guidelines for coal mining and created the Office of Surface Mining in the Department of the Interior. Other federal agencies regulate mining safety, air and water emissions, and other aspects of coal production and use.

Air emissions and mountaintop mining are the most important environmental issues currently affecting the coal industry. Coal-fired electric generating facilities are a major source of air emissions, including sulfur dioxide (SO 2), nitrogen oxides (NOX), particulate matter (PM), mercury, and carbon dioxide (CO2). Regulations under the Clean Air Act (CAA) limit SO2, NOX, and PM emissions, with further requirements on the horizon. CO2, a greenhouse gas associated with potential climate change, however, is not controlled under the CAA. The practice of mountaintop mining removing the top of a mountain to reveal underlying coal seams has received considerable attention recently. When mountaintop material is deposited in adjacent valleys, streams flowing through the valleys are buried.

The outlook for U.S. coal is mixed. While forecasts predict steady growth in coal supply and demand, the increased production is expected to come from fewer, larger mines and fewer producers. Continued competition from natural gas is likely to put pressure on coal prices for the foreseeable future.

This report will not be updated.