In recent years, the coal mining industry has come under attack from a variety of persons for various reasons. Many of the complaints of environmentalists and others are valid. But I would like to point out several of the benefits of coal mining.
Useful Products and Byproducts of Coal Thousands of products are made out of coal and coal byproducts. For example, coal is used to produce many useful chemicals. Coal is not just used to generate heat and electricity, although the biggest use of coal is for those purposes. A webpage on The World Coal Association website is one source that lists a few of the thousands of uses of coal. A webpage on Reference.com is another.
Electricity and Heating Benefits of Coal Mining Much electricity is still generated by coal, and historically coal has been the #1 energy source for producing electricity in the United States. Cheaper natural gas and oil prices have reduced coal's share in the energy market, but according to a United States Energy Administration webpage, in 2015 coal and natural gas each accounted for 33% of the energy share in electricity generation in the United States. Coal is expected to drop to #2 behind natural gas when 2016 data becomes available, but coal remains a major energy source for electricity generation in the United States.
Also, over the centuries that coal has been mined, the coal produced has generated heat to keep many homes and businesses warm. This has been done through fireplaces, coal stoves, coal furnaces, and radiators with steam heated by coal. In addition, coal converted into coke has played a major role in the steel industry. Much coal was also used in the past for train locomotives, as well as steamboats.
Jobs and Company TownsCoal mining generated a huge number of jobs directly, and many more indirectly through other companies and individuals that provided goods and services to miners and their families. In the rural Appalachian coal fields that were sparsely settled before coal mining companies brought people in, the coal companies actually built towns. They built houses for miners, schools, company stores, churches, recreation centers, hospitals, and other businesses that provided goods and services to the miners and their families.
In many cases the facilities provided to the miners were comparable to or better than those that the typical person in rural areas of the United States had at the time. Coal has provided hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States over the years, as well as hundreds of thousands more in support industries related to coal. In southeastern Kentucky, where I am from, coal mining has been the biggest employer for a century. Coal mining companies brought huge numbers of immigrants to the area to mine the coal, and provided all the basic necessities for them (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) via the company towns they built.
Closing Thoughts As I close, I do want to make it clear that though the benefits of coal mining may have far exceeded its drawbacks during the centuries of mining, there have been problems. Coal mining has historically been a dangerous job. Pollution is generated in its production, transportation, and consumption.
Coal mining companies often used unethical methods to acquire land and/or mineral rights on land. And there have been other problems over the years, such as labor disputes that sometimes became violent.
But, despite the problems, I think it is important to remember the very important role that coal mining has played historically in this country (and the world). Coal mining and the coal produced by it provided the fuel that enabled the Industrial Revolution to take place. Without coal mining, several things that we perhaps basically take for granted might not have happened as quickly or as well as they did: steel production, locomotives and railroads, electricity generation, and a huge number of products that we perhaps take for granted.
It may be time for coal mining to decline, and in another generation it may virtually cease if renewable fuels work out well. But let's not forget the positive role that coal played in our past and to a large degree still plays in our present.
And who knows? Maybe in another generation we'll find currently unforeseen environmental problems with renewable fuels like solar power. Much coal remains in the ground in various places, and improvements in methods of mining, transportation, and usage can potentially make it a much cleaner fuel in the future than it has been in the past.
Disclosure: Although I am not a practicing mining engineer, I do hold a mining engineering degree from the University of Kentucky, worked two summers in the mining industry during college, and some of my relatives worked in the mining industry, including both my father and paternal grandfather who worked as mining engineers.
Note: This article is basically a reprint of one posted on another website earlier.