America has more coal than any other fossil fuel resource. The United States also has more coal reserves than any other single country in the world. In fact, just over 1/4 of all the known coal in the world is in the United States. The United States has more coal that can be mined than the rest of the world has oil that can be pumped from the ground.
Currently, coal is mined in 26 of the 50 states.
Coal is used primarily in the United States to generate electricity. In fact, it is burned in power plants to produce nearly half of the electricity we use. A stove uses about half a ton of coal a year. A water heater uses about two tons of coal a year. And a refrigerator, that's another half-ton a year. Even though you may never see coal, you use several tons of it every year!
The material that formed fossil fuels varied greatly over time as each layer was buried. [Read more about how coal was formed.] As a result of these variations and the length of time the coal was forming, several types of coal were created. Depending upon its composition, each type of coal burns differently and releases different types of emissions [You'll learn more about this in the later section Cleaning Up Coal].
The four types (or "ranks") of coal mined today are: anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite.
Lignite: The largest portion of the world's coal reserves is made up of lignite, a soft, brownish-black coal that forms the lowest level of the coal family. You can even see the texture of the original wood in some pieces of lignite that is found primarily west of the Mississippi River in the United States.
Subbituminous: Next up the scale is subbituminous coal, a dull black coal. It gives off a little more energy (heat) than lignite when it burns. It is mined mostly in Montana, Wyoming and a few other western states.
Bituminous: Still more energy is packed into bituminous coal, sometimes called "soft coal." In the United States, it is found primarily east of the Mississippi River in midwestern states like Ohio and Illinois and in the Appalachian mountain range from Kentucky to Pennsylvania.
Anthracite: Anthracite is the hardest coal and gives off a great amount of heat when it burns. Unfortunately, in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, there is little anthracite coal to be mined. The U.S. reserves of anthracite are located primarily in Pennsylvania.
Coal is not only our most abundant fossil fuel, it is also the one with perhaps the longest history. If you are interested in the early discovery and uses of coal...