Coal industry - History of Business in the U.S.
Definition: Enterprises that mine and process coal
Significance: An important component of American industrial development since the early nineteenth century, coal has provided energy to industry and remained a major source of electrical power into the early twenty-first century. Coal mining has provided numerous jobs, and it served to spur railroad construction during the late nineteenth century, while persistent health and safety concerns for mine workers have placed the industry at the heart of the labor and regulation movements.
Coal has been mined in the United States since the colonial era. Early coal mines, primarily in Pennsylvania, were usually surface mines or shallow underground mines. Beginning during the 1840’s, underground mines became more common in Pennsylvania and later inWest Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Underground mining continues to be a major form of mining in the eastern United States. During the mid-twentieth century, surface mining developed as a major extraction technique in all parts of the country. In Western states such as Wyoming, massive equipment is used to remove both the surface and the coal. Particularly in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, a surface mining technique known as mountaintop removal has been deployed. In this technique, explosive charges blow the tops off hills into nearby valleys to make coal accessible to mining.
By the late twentieth century, the electric power industry consumed most of the coal mined in the United States. Because the United States has large coal reserves, coal could continue to provide energy well into the future. Coal mining and burning produce several forms of environmental pollution, however. One potential innovation has been seen in efforts to liquefy coal or turn it into a gas. Gasified coal would serve as a supplement to petroleum, as well as burning more cleanly than does solid coal. These projects are very high-cost, however, and synthesized coal liquids remain uneconomic, although increases in the price of crude oil may motivate additional research.
- Arnold, Barbara J., Mark S. Kilima, and Peter J. Bethell. Designing the Coal Preparation Plant of the Future. New York: Society for Mining Metallurgy and Exploration, 2007. Examines advances in producing “clean coal.”
- Goodell, Jeff. Big Coal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Excellent analysis of the role of coal in American industry and its environmental impact.
- Lockard, Duane. Coal. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Good analysis of the human impact of the coal industry.
- Logan, Michale, ed. Coal. New York: Greenhaven, 2007. Compilation of various short pieces presenting opposing viewpoints regarding the coal industry.
- Shnayerson, Michael. Coal River. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008. Deals with the coal industry’s use of mountaintop removal and the environmental problems generated by the process.
- Smil, Vaclav. Energy at the Crossroads. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. Places coal use in the larger context of global energy policies.