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COAL: Ancient Gift Serving Modern Man
American Coal Foundation

Introduction

Coal was one of man's earliest sources of heat and light. The Chinese were known to have dug it more than 3,000 years ago. The first recorded discovery of coal in this country was by French explorers on the Illinois River in 1679, and the earliest recorded commercial mining occurred near Richmond, Virginia, in 1750. In the nineteenth century, coal grew rapidly in importance, and from 1850 to 1950 it was our most important energy fuel.

Today, coal is enjoying a renaissance as a $23 billion a year industry, accounting for over half of our electric power generation, supplying coke for the nation's steel industry, and providing a source of foreign exchange as an export commodity.

An abundant supply of reasonably priced energy has helped make America the richest nation on earth. Our energy comes in many different forms, but experts estimate that more than 80 percent of the United States' recoverable fossil fuels take the form of coal. Coal is so abundant that we can meet our needs for another 250-300 years at the current rate of use. The rest of our in-ground energy sources include oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids, bitumins and shale oil, and uranium.

Today's coal industry has been transformed from the image people remember from a bygone era, when coal was used predominantly to heat homes and power trains. Now, well-trained, highly skilled men and women produce coal using modern, sophisticated technologies and equipment. The coal industry emphasizes worker safety and health, and works hard to minimize the environmental effects of mining. In addition, the American coal industry is highly competitive, which helps to keep coal price and supply stable.

Society's use of coal also has changed greatly. In the mid-nineteenth century, coal fueled America's growing industrial might. Among other things, it was used to melt glass, heat forges, kiln lime and cement, and process wood pulp. Steam engines drove factory machines through elaborate schemes of pulleys. Coal-powered railroads moved vast amounts of raw materials, finished goods, and people.

By the early 1950s, though, the nation was turning away from the direct use of coal. Oil and natural gas -- cheap, abundant, and easy to move and store -- displaced coal in railroad transportation, home heating, and in certain industrial applications. At the same time, nuclear power was being widely promoted as the energy form of the future. But in the 1970s, oil and natural gas supplies tightened while prices surged and the nation learned a painful lesson about dependence on foreign energy. Also, the promise of nuclear power began to dim. So coal took on renewed meaning as the nation's premier energy source.

Today, coal is used to generate more than half the nation's electric power. Forecasters predict an even more robust role for coal in the future as electric power continues to grow as a major source of energy. Equally important, work on new coal combustion technologies is advancing in response to society's demands that a clean environment be maintained, and researchers in industry, universities and the government are continuing their efforts to develop new ways for this ancient gift to continue serving modern society.

The American Coal Foundation was created to foster a better understanding of coal's contribution to modern American life. This booklet offers a succinct picture. For more information about the coal industry and how coal is used, please write to:

American Coal Foundation
1130 17th St. NW -- Suite 220
Washington, DC 20036
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Last Updated: Thursday, 15-Dec-2005 12:20:49 EST