Long-touted as a potential path, if not the destination, to the world’s energy future, “clean coal” is about as big of a joke today as duck and cover being an effective way of surviving a thermonuclear blast.
It had a short time when people took it seriously. Then those people grew up. But insults aside, let’s get into the specifics of how dirty those lumps from Santa Claus are.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says of coal on their website, “Coal is cheap, plentiful and dirty— as cheap as dirt, as plentiful as dirt, and as dirty as dirt— since after all, coal is little more than dirt that burns.” Coal is about 40 to 90 percent carbon by weight, depending on which of four classifications it falls into: lignite, subbituminous, bituminous and anthracite. Toward the end of that range is when carbon content—and therefore energy content—is the greatest.
While all coal types are utilized—and can be found in the United States—let’s focus on bituminous, which is the most commonly found coal in the country. Bituminous coal has an energy content of roughly 24 million Btu per ton and took about 300 million years to form. When burned, the coal gives off 205.7 pounds of carbon dioxide per million Btu of energy, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Ironically, this is the cleanest of the four coal types, though not by very much at all.
For comparison, burning diesel fuel produces about 161.3 pounds of carbon dioxide per million Btu of energy. For gasoline it’s 157.2 pounds and for natural gas it’s 117 pounds flat, making natural gas polluting, but still the cleanest of the fossil fuel sources.
Why is all of this important? Because while the United States is in the middle of an energy renaissance with massive amounts of natural gas being tapped like never before and a thriving renewable energy industry finding its stride, we still leaned on coal to produce 40.39 percent of our energy in 2013, which is the most recent full year that the EIA has data for.
However, comparing 10-months totals to the two previous years, it looks like coal is on track to be used for even more electric generation in 2014.
While the United States is no stranger to coal, we at Energy Digital were curious about which other countries are hard at work mining the dirty fuel. So according to EIA data—which is as recent as 2012 totals at this time—these are the 10 countries who mine the most coal. It’s worth mentioning that China alone produced more coal in 2012 than all of North America combined—almost four times over.
10. Kazakhstan – 138,917.7 thousand short tons, 8.22 percent increase from 2011
9. Poland – 158,197.1 thousand short tons, 3.61 percent increase from 2011
8. Germany – 217,144.3 thousand short tons, 4.47 percent increase from 2011
7. South Africa – 285,831.5 thousand short tons, 2.59 percent increase from 2011
6. Russia – 390,152.1 thousand short tons, 9.94 percent increase from 2011
5. Australia – 463,783.2 thousand short tons, 4.60 percent increase from 2011
4. Indonesia – 488,112.3 thousand short tons, 22.89 percent increase from 2011
3. India – 649,643.9 thousand short tons, 2.50 percent increase from 2011
2. United States – 1,016,458 thousand short tons, 7.23 percent decrease from 2011
1. China – 4,025,377 thousand short tons, 3.80 percent increase from 2011
So if all of this information about “dirty coal” is getting you down, here’s a video from GOOD about some of the key points about coal with personified little lumps of anthracite (maybe) dancing to your heart’s delight. Bear in mind the video was made in 2011 so some of its statistics have changed a bit since then.