Coal Basics
Coal takes millions of years to create. Coal is a combustible (able to be burnt) black or brownish-black sedimentary rock composed mostly of carbon and hydrocarbons. It is the most abundant fossil fuel produced in the United States. Coal is a non-renewable energy source because it takes millions of years to create. The energy in coal comes from the energy stored by plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth was partly covered with swampy forests. For millions of years, a layer of dead plants at the bottom of the swamps was covered by layers of water and dirt, trapping the energy of the dead plants. The heat and pressure from the top layers helped the plant remains turn into what we today call coal.

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Diagram of surface mining
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A !!typical deep mine!

What Are Some Problems With Electricity and Fossil Fuels?

One of the most common ways to produce electricity is through the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas. When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which leads to acid rain and global warming. These are big problems for our environment.

Another concern is that we will eventually run out of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are non-renewable sources of energy because it takes millions of years to create them. That's why it's so important that we start to develop better ways to use renewable sources of energy such as wind and water power to create electric energy.

Mining Coal
Coal miners use giant machines to remove coal from the ground. They use two methods: surface or underground mining. Many U.S. coal beds are very near the ground's surface, and about two-thirds of coal production comes from surface mines. Modern mining methods allow us to easily reach most of our coal reserves. Due to growth in surface mining and improved mining technology, the amount of coal produced by one miner in one hour has more than tripled since 1978.

Surface mining (including mountain top removal) is used to produce most of the coal in the United States because it is less expensive than underground mining. Surface mining can be used when the coal is buried less than 200 feet underground.

Diagram of surface mining
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In surface mining, giant machines remove the top soil and layers of rock known as "overburden" to expose the coal seam. Once the mining is finished, the dirt and rock are returned to the pit, the topsoil is replaced, and the area is replanted.

Underground mining, sometimes called deep mining, is used when the coal is buried several hundred feet below the surface. Some underground mines are 1,000 feet deep. To remove coal in these underground mines, miners ride elevators down deep mine shafts where they run machines that dig out the coal.

A typical deep mine
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Coal & the Environment
Reading C Coal is an abundant fuel that is relatively inexpensive to produce and convert to useful energy. However, producing and using coal has many impacts on the environment.

Impacts of coal mining
Surface, or strip mines, are the source of about 70% of the coal that is mined in the U.S. These mining operations remove the soil and rock above coal deposits, or “seams,” disturbing land at its surface.

Reading A One surface mining technique that has affected large areas of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and Kentucky is mountain top removal and valley fill mining, where the tops of mountains have been removed using a combination of explosives and mining equipment and deposited into nearby valleys. As a result, the landscape is changed, and streams may be covered with a mixture of rock and dirt. The water draining from these filled valleys may contain pollutants that can harm aquatic wildlife downstream. While mountain-top mining has been around since the 1970s, its use became more widespread and controversial since the 1990s.

Reading D U.S. laws require that dust and water runoff from the affected area has to be controlled, and that the area has to be "reclaimed" close to its original condition. Many surface mines have been reclaimed so well that it can be hard to tell that there was a surface mine in the area. However, there are areas that have not been reclaimed as successfully.

Reading E Underground mines have less overall impact on the environment than surface mines. The most serious impact of underground mining may be the methane gas that has to be vented out of mines to make the mines safe to work in. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas. In 2011, the most recent year for which estimates are available, methane emissions from underground mines accounted for about 7% of total U.S. methane emissions and 1% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (based on global warming potential). Some mines capture and use or sell the methane extracted from mines. Surface mines contributed about 2% of total U.S. methane emissions. Learn more about greenhouse gas emissions.

Reading B The ground above mine tunnels can collapse, and acidic water can drain from abandoned underground mines. Underground coal mining is a dangerous profession, and coal miners can be injured or killed in mining accidents, especially in countries without strict enforcement of safety regulations and procedures. Miners can also get black lung disease from the coal dust in the mines. Learn more about coal mining and safety.


Why Do We Need to Conserve Electricity?

Every year, many industrialized countries around the world use more energy than they did the year before. Some experts say that the total amount of energy Americans use doubles every twenty years. One of the biggest problems is that a lot of this energy is wasted.

There are many reasons why we need to conserve, or use less, electricity. First of all, if we conserve electricity, we save money because electricity costs money. If you conserve electricity every single day, you can save lots and lots of money over time. You can spend this money on other things that you need and want.

Another reason why we need to conserve electricity is because conserving electricity means that we are using less of the earth’s non-renewable resources. Non-renewable resources are gone forever once we use them up. Examples are oil, natural gas, uranium, and coal which are used to create electricity. Therefore, wasting electricity is not good for the environment.

Yet another reason that we need to conserve energy is to make up for some of the energy that is wasted due to the fact that a lot of people do not do enough reducing, reusing, and recycling of their garbage. Companies use electricity to produce lots of unnecessary items since many consumers do not use and reuse things as much as they should. Making these products wastes a lot of energy and electricity.

Finally, we need to conserve electricity today in order to help future generations. Energy will be an even bigger problem in the future than it is today. So if kids start learning to use less electricity and to use it wisely today, they will be helping themselves in the future.