National Geographic News
Spruce Mine is operated by Mingo Logan Coal company owned by Arch Coal an International Coal Company based in St. Lous, MO.  This site is located in Logan County WV and is a massive site that shows the full consequences of MTR mining.  The smoking fissures and dust emitted by the blasting and coal extraction is apocalyptic type setting.

Blasting dust and exhaust rise above the Spruce Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.


Dennis Dimick

National Geographic

Published June 2, 2014

Coal built the modern world and still makes its lights glow, but we've reached a turning point in our love affair with this powerful and ancient fuel.

The world—with China and the U.S. in the lead—burns more coal now than ever, and our reliance on it to generate electricity keeps rising. But coal pollutes more than oil or natural gas, and scientists say that cutting its use is critical to reducing the impact of climate change.

The Obama Administration, amid objections from political foes and even some friends, is moving to push the U.S. to reduce its use of coal. The question will be how much the EPA's efforts to cut carbon emissions can do for the environment at a time when other nations, especially China and India, are escalating their burning of coal to meet a booming demand for electricity.

A Black Rock That Burns

This flammable black rock powered the steam engines and factories of the industrial revolution in England and Europe more than 200 years ago. In the United States coal powered the furnaces of iron and steel mills that built our cities, railroads, and steamships. Oil energy now turns wheels, powers ships, and keeps airplanes aloft, but the world still relies more on coal than on any other energy source to keep the lights on.

Coal generates 40 percent of the world's kilowatts, and world coal use, primarily for electric power, rose by 54 percent from 2000 to 2011.

Connecting Dots: The News in Perspective

Even as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has reduced the U.S.'s reliance on coal-fired power by about one-third in recent years, since 2000 coal use worldwide has gone up almost as much as the use of all other fuels—natural gas, oil, renewables, and nuclear power—combined, according to the 2011 World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency

Today we burn coal mostly to generate electric power. The U.S. Energy Information Agency says the U.S., with the world's largest reserves, burns about 11 percent of the world's annual coal production and gets 37 percent of its electricity from coal. But China, with reserves less than half those of the U.S., burns 49 percent of the world's coal.

Graphic about amount of coal burned.

Worldwide, coal consumption is projected to keep rising for decades, at least unless more countries replace coal with other energy sources or we begin to run out of coal, which is unlikely soon. Estimates vary, but the World Coal Association says we have enough recoverable coal worldwide to last more than 110 years. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the U.S. has slightly less than a 200-year supply.

Seeing Risks to "Our Way of Life"

Coal, as writer Michelle Nijhuis explained in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine, is "fraught with 'externalities'—the heavy costs it imposes on society." Nijhuis went on, "It's the dirtiest, most lethal energy source we have. But by most measures it's also the cheapest, and we depend on it."

Coal's external costs on society include thousands of coal miner deaths annually, hundreds of flattened Appalachian mountains in the U.S., and a variety of pollutants, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, solid ash waste, acid mine drainage, water pollution, and acid rain.

Coal produces about 39 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels globally, and it is these carbon emissions that have come under scrutiny. Scientists for decades have pointed to cutting carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels as key to keeping the climate from destabilizing.

University of Chicago geophysical scientist David Archer wrote in his book The Long Thaw, "Because there is so much coal on Earth, the climate of the future ultimately will be determined by what happens to the coal."

That's one reason the U.S. government announced today that by 2030, it intends to reduce the carbon emission levels from U.S. power plants by 30 percent from their 2005 levels.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in announcing the proposed plan, "Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life."

Referring to unabated carbon emissions from power plants, she said, "In our lifetimes, if we do nothing about climate change, temperatures could rise 10 degrees and seas could rise by four feet."

Those estimates are higher than the most dire scientific projections for 2100 in recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, like the Obama Administration, the IPCC has said that the effects of climate change can be reduced by cutting emissions.

Older than the Dinosaurs

The fuels we rely on the most—coal, oil, and natural gas—all come from ancient plants and animals that grew under the sun's heat and light hundreds of millions of years ago, long before the dinosaurs lived. Over millions of years these plants and animals were buried, compressed, and fossilized to become the carbon-rich fuels that we rely on today to power the world.

Fossil fuels originated in a geological period called the Carboniferous, which lasted from about 300 million to 360 million years ago. Dinosaurs appeared millions of years later. The world was much warmer during the time when fossil fuels were created, and coal formed in regions across portions of North America, England, Europe, and China that were covered by vast tropical forests.

Fossil fuels were created over millions of years as these ancient forests died out and eventually were covered by layers of mud, rock, and sand as seas rose and fell. These ancient layers of carbon-rich plant and animal sediments built up over millions of years. It's only in the past few hundred years that we've discovered, dug up, and drilled for these rich stores of coal, oil, and gas.

MIT (now Harvard) chemist Daniel Nocera told the New Yorker in May 2012, "Every year, by burning fossil fuels, we release a million years of photosynthesis." In other words, it took a million years of plant growth powered by the sun to create the coal, oil, and gas that we burn each year.

By burning these fossil carbon fuels, each year we release back into the atmosphere the plant carbon that was stored up gradually over that million years. This helps explain why we see dramatically rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: Levels are now almost 400 parts per million, about one-third higher now than before we began burning coal at the start of the industrial revolution, around 1800. (Related: "Northern Hemisphere Cracks 400 ppm CO₂ for Whole Month for First Time")

People live in the shadows of the John Amos Power Plant, this large coal fired power plant.
A man and his dog sit in the shadow of the John E. Amos Power Plant, a coal-fired plant built in the 1970s.

Like a Global Blanket

In the 1890s Swedish chemist Svanate Arrhenius first theorized that changes in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could alter Earth's surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.

Like a greenhouse, the Earth is warmer than outer space because carbon dioxide in our atmosphere holds heat near the Earth's surface. Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere acts in much the same way as blankets on a bed: If we have too few blankets we get cold, too many blankets and we get hot.

If we had no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Earth would be an ice-covered ball. Carbon dioxide is radiative—it absorbs solar heat reflected off Earth's surface and holds that heat in the atmosphere near the Earth. Hold your hand near a hot iron or hot stove and you will feel the heat; it is this radiative (or reflected) heat that CO₂ absorbs.

Add too much carbon dioxide, and it's like adding too many blankets to your bed: You get warm. Now the Earth is warming. Arrhenius pointed out that too much carbon dioxide would cause the Earth to warm up. He was not alone.

In the late 1950s, Charles David Keeling of the California Institute of Technology began tracking carbon dioxide levels at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were about 315 parts per million when he began his work in 1959, and they've been continuously measured since then by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Now CO₂ levels regularly exceed 400 ppm. Studies of ice cores from Antarctica indicate that current CO₂ levels are higher now than they've been in the past 800,000 years. Before we began burning fossil fuels, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere averaged no higher than about 280 ppm.

Scientific studies have indicated a link between rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and rising seas. In many studies scientists have documented other impacts as temperatures rise: melting glaciers and ice caps, loss of snowpack, shifting seasons, more frequent extreme precipitation, and more heat waves and droughts that will damage crop yields.

A Benchmark Moment?

All things considered, the proposed carbon emissions ruling from the Obama Administration could reduce global carbon emissions by a small amount. Since the 600 existing coal power plants in the U.S. burn about 11 percent of the world's coal, the proposed 30 percent emissions cut would, in the years ahead, result in slightly more than a 3 percent reduction worldwide.

The question remains whether other nations such as China and India will also move to reduce emissions. In absolute numbers the Obama Administration's effort is small, but it does begin to slowly move the country away from carbon-intensive fuels for electric power and toward less polluting energy sources such as wind, solar, and nuclear power.

U.S. carbon emissions have fallen in recent years, but they're beginning to rise again. And since global emissions keep rising too, this move to cut power plant emissions looks to get swamped unless China and India begin to move away from coal.

Still, little things can add up.

If the Obama Administration's move against carbon pollution inspires other nations to follow—and the eventual result is a meaningful reduction in such emissions worldwide—the people of low-lying coastal cities, all of us who rely on crop harvests to eat, and the children of future generations may be able to mark this as the moment we truly began to turn toward alternative ways of powering the planet.

Dennis Dimick is National Geographic's Executive Editor for the Environment. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and flickr.

Rich Persoff
Rich Persoff

Well researched article! But "our love affair with this powerful and ancient fuel"?  I don't see how a writer of your skill could use this cheap yellow-journalism cliche.  Please! Never again

Victoria C.
Victoria C.

Why use thermal power plants when geothermal plants can be built since there's active volcanoes in the US? (e.g.,Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount Lassen)

dave powelson
dave powelson

Coal mines are also a significant source of methane pollution:

"Globally, coal mines emit over 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually (over 28 billion cubic meters annually), or about 6% of total anthropogenic methane emissions"

Gerry Vankoughnett
Gerry Vankoughnett

The fewest iterations to convert energy to a usable form from our Sun reaps the least impact on the environment. 

Les Dethlefsen
Les Dethlefsen

The remarkable chemist Svante Arrhenius died in 1927.  You've got the wrong century for his back-of-the-envelope estimation that doubling atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would lead to a 5C rise in average temperature.  This followed from his observation that CO2 absorbs infrared light much more strongly than the more abundant gases in the atmosphere (N2, O2).  I don't know the exact year, but's been since the 1890s (!!!) that we've known the most fundamental, basic fact driving anthropogenic climate change.

Here's what Arrhenius realized: CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere works just like the glass in a greenhouse.  Energy in the form of visible light streams in (since glass/CO2 is fairly transparent to visible light) and gets absorbed by something that isn't transparent, which warms up, and reradiates some of that energy as infrared light.  Most of that infrared radiation stays in the greenhouse/atmosphere because glass/CO2 isn't very transparent to IR. The thicker the glass on the greenhouse (e.g. double pane) or the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the stronger the effect. (In other words, a smaller fraction of IR escapes.)  So the IR keeps bouncing around inside the greenhouse/atmosphere, warming things up.  Eventually, as the temperature increases and the intensity of IR increases, the energy carried out by the small fraction of IR that escapes finally equals the energy coming in as visible light, and the greenhouse/atmosphere reaches a new equilibrium at a higher temperature.

And here's the thing: NO ONE disputes the IR absorbance of CO2.  It's verifiable in the lab.  NO ONE disputes  the physics of absorbance/emission of electromagnetic radiation for an isolated system...also verifiable in the lab.  For a century, geophysical textbooks described the essential role of the small amount (by percentage) of CO2 in the atmosphere in keeping the Earth at a habitable temperature by the greenhouse effect, instead of having a 'snowball Earth'...and it was COMPLETELY noncontroversial.  Of course, in Arrhenius's time and for half a century afterwards, we had no clue that human burning of buried carbon was, in fact, increasing the atmospheric CO2 concentration.  The first glimmers of that realization came in the 1950s.

And once the consequences of that fact entered the public consciousness, the people, corporations, and countries that are getting rich off of the burning of fossil fuels took a page from the Big Tobacco playbook, and decided to convince the public that the science is controversial, when it isn't.  In other words, they claim that even though pre-industrial levels of CO2 are essential to keeping the Earth as warm as it has been throughout human history, releasing additional CO2 by burning carbon that's been buried for 300 million years won't make the Earth any warmer than it is now.

So here's a thought're cold at night and get up to fetch a second blanket.  You aren't changing the energy input (your body heat), you're just slowing the loss of energy from your bed to the rest of the room.   What do YOU expect to happen to the temperature in the bed? 

Chappidi Kalyan
Chappidi Kalyan

Start slowly moving on using the solar power,wind power etc , In india the Govt gives subsidise for installing solar cells for generation of power at homes and gives intrest free loans for installing . 

Briony Millman
Briony Millman

Solar Roadways, graphine power cells. All i'm sayin'.

Lynette Morse
Lynette Morse

It is mindboggling to me that Americans just do not believe in the rise of CO2 levels.

How is it possible to think that the above article is a hoax?  Or part of a conspiracy?

Why are "the scientists" just not reaching these people?  Or their politicians?

Personally I am jumping ahead and investing in the renewable energies.  Some economists are concluding that an investment in fossil fuels now will prove to be a trap.

Michael Wheater
Michael Wheater

Burn the coal,

Melt the ice,

Wait and watch,

The sea level rise.

Tom Mengel
Tom Mengel

Conservatives love to say "let the market decide".  Yes, let's do that, but let's also be sure all the energy sources compete on a more or less equal basis as to risks and benefits figured into their true costs, not in grandfathered and technologically old inefficient systems that literally send much of their true collateral costs up the chimney for someone else to deal with.  On that basis yes, some costs to consumers will go up when they can no longer pass the buck on true coal use costs, and it will in turn cause coal use die out when it users must figure in those costs while competing with other energy types in a free market.  And the market will have spoken. 

Bob Bridge
Bob Bridge

When will the "consensus" scientists prove that CO2 is causing a rise in the earth's temperature.  Americans are suppose to swollow this fraud because the media are either too incompetent to understand the science or are too willing to say its a done deal.


avec l'arrivée des énergies renouvelables le charbon aurait du passer aux oubliettes, c'est vrai que c'est encore difficile de faire voler un avion sans dérivés de pétrole, mais on peut produire de l'électricité sans bruler de charbon. l'air et le sol échapperaient à la dégradation et l'ours polaire gagnerait quelques décennies de sursis    

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

We have the ability to sustain our lifestyle without impacting the global climate, The only thing holding us back is the almighty buck!!! If we don't contain the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air we will be saddling our children and their children and grandchildren to a global climate much less predictable and hostile! Much like the water shortage in California and the rising ocean levels are doing NOW! There are wind farms and tidal generators and wisely designed hydroelectric plants operating now and have been operating for years with a climate cost of nearly zero. We must act now before we end up with a global climate more closely resembling "Waterworld" ! I know that is a very drastic example, But if the poles were to completely melt and all of the glaciers were, We would be in serious trouble. We need to get behind plans like President Obama's, Not because it is easy, But because it is necessary. Without reacting to what is happening right under our noses, We are heading for a global catastrophe of epic proportions. Let's support the plans to help repair the damage we have done. It's not the politicians job only, We have to work together. If not for our sakes, Then for our childdren's!!!

Dennis Dimick
Dennis Dimick expert

@Rich Persoff Thank you for your compliment and comment Rich. I guess if it hasn't been a love affair, I'd be interested in knowing how you might characterize it.

robb kendrick
robb kendrick

@Bob Bridge

Maybe you should think of Earth as a living organism and compare it to a human being smoking 3 packs of cigarettes per day.  If you do this simple comparison you will see that burning coal is not healthy for the planet or other life forms that share Earth as home.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Are you SERIOUS!!! Didn't you pay attention when you were in science class. As mentioned above, The fact that CO2 levels have the effect of raising the Earth's temperature is a junior high school subject! It is a fact. It is also a fact that burning fossil fuels is releasing CO2 that took millions of years to sequester in the form of Coal, Natural Gas a.k.a Methane and Oil. So when it is burned it releases all of that CO2 all at once. And the result is temperatures rise. It's all back of the envelope math.

Michael Wheater
Michael Wheater

Maybe, in that case, you could explain it to us, Bob.


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