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Sedimentary rock
Coal anthracite.jpg
Anthracite coal
Primary carbon
Secondary hydrogen,
Bituminous coal

Coal (from the Old English term col, which has meant "mineral of fossilized carbon" since the 13th century) is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure. Coal is composed primarily of carbon along with variable quantities of other elements, chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen.

Throughout history, coal has been a useful resource. It is primarily burned for the production of electricity and/or heat, and is also used for industrial purposes, such as refining metals. A fossil fuel, coal forms when dead plant matter is converted into peat, which in turn is converted into lignite, then sub-bituminous coal, after that bituminous coal, and lastly anthracite. This involves biological and geological processes that take place over a long period.

Coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide releases. In 1999 world gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage were 8,666 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Coal-fired electric power generation emits around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated, which is almost double the approximately 1100 pounds of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt-hour generated. Because of this higher carbon efficiency of natural gas generation, as the fuel mix in the United States has changed to reduce coal and increase natural gas generation, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen. Those measured in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of any year since 1992.

Coal is extracted from the ground by coal mining, either underground by shaft mining, or at ground level by open pit mining extraction. Since 1983 the world top coal producer is China, in 2011 China produced 3,520 millions of tonnes of coal - 49.5% of 7,695 millions tonnes world coal production. In 2011 other large producers were United States (993 millions tonnes), India (589), European Union (576) and Australia (416). In 2010 largest exporters were Australia with 328 million tonnes (27.1% of world coal export) and Indonesia with 316 millions tonnes (26.1%), while largest importers were Japan with 207 million tonnes (17.5% of world coal import), China with 195 million tonnes (16.6%) and South Korea with 126 million tonnes (10.7%).


Example chemical structure of coal

At various times in the geologic past, the Earth had dense forests in low-lying wetland areas. Due to natural processes such as flooding, these forests were buried under the soil. As more and more soil deposited over them, they were compressed. The temperature also rose as they sank deeper and deeper. As the process continued the plant matter was protected from biodegradation and oxidization, usually by mud or acidic water. This trapped the carbon in immense peat bogs that were eventually covered and deeply buried by sediments. Under high pressure and high temperature, dead vegetation was slowly converted to coal. As coal contains mainly carbon, the conversion of dead vegetation into coal is called carbonization.

The wide, shallow seas of the Carboniferous era provided ideal conditions for coal formation, although coal is known from most geological periods. The exception is the coal gap in the Permian–Triassic extinction event, where coal is rare. Coal is known from Precambrian strata, which predate land plants — this coal is presumed to have originated from residues of algae.


Coastal exposure of the Point Aconi Seam (Nova Scotia)

As geological processes apply pressure to dead biotic material over time, under suitable conditions it is transformed successively into:

  • Peat, considered to be a precursor of coal, has industrial importance as a fuel in some regions, for example, Ireland and Finland. In its dehydrated form, peat is a highly effective absorbent for fuel and oil spills on land and water. It is also used as a conditioner for soil to make it more able to retain and slowly release water.
  • Lignite, or brown coal, is the lowest rank of coal and used almost exclusively as fuel for electric power generation. Jet, a compact form of lignite, is sometimes polished and has been used as an ornamental stone since the Upper Palaeolithic.
  • Sub-bituminous coal, whose properties range from those of lignite to those of bituminous coal, is used primarily as fuel for steam-electric power generation and is an important source of light aromatic hydrocarbons for the chemical synthesis industry.
  • Bituminous coal is a dense sedimentary rock, usually black, but sometimes dark brown, often with well-defined bands of bright and dull material; it is used primarily as fuel in steam-electric power generation, with substantial quantities used for heat and power applications in manufacturing and to make coke.
  • "Steam coal" is a grade between bituminous coal and anthracite, once widely used as a fuel for steam locomotives. In this specialized use, it is sometimes known as "sea-coal" in the US. Small steam coal (dry small steam nuts or DSSN) was used as a fuel for domestic water heating.
  • Anthracite, the highest rank of coal, is a harder, glossy black coal used primarily for residential and commercial space heating. It may be divided further into metamorphically altered bituminous coal and "petrified oil", as from the deposits in Pennsylvania.
  • Graphite, technically the highest rank, is difficult to ignite and is not commonly used as fuel — it is mostly used in pencils and, when powdered, as a lubricant.

The classification of coal is generally based on the content of volatiles. However, the exact classification varies between countries. According to the German classification, coal is classified as follows:

German Classification English Designation Volatiles % C Carbon % H Hydrogen % O Oxygen % S Sulfur % Heat content kJ/kg
Braunkohle Lignite 45–65 60–75 6.0–5.8 34-17 0.5-3 <28,470
Flammkohle Flame coal 40-45 75-82 6.0-5.8 >9.8 ~1 <32,870
Gasflammkohle Gas flame coal 35-40 82-85 5.8-5.6 9.8-7.3 ~1 <33,910
Gaskohle Gas coal 28-35 85-87.5 5.6-5.0 7.3-4.5 ~1 <34,960
Fettkohle Fat coal 19-28 87.5-89.5 5.0-4.5 4.5-3.2 ~1 <35,380
Esskohle Forge coal 14-19 89.5-90.5 4.5-4.0 3.2-2.8 ~1 <35,380
Magerkohle Nonbaking coal 10-14 90.5-91.5 4.0-3.75 2.8-3.5 ~1 35,380
Anthrazit Anthracite 7-12 >91.5 <3.75 <2.5 ~1 <35,300
Percent by weight

The middle six grades in the table represent a progressive transition from the English-language sub-bituminous to bituminous coal, while the last class is an approximate equivalent to anthracite, but more inclusive (US anthracite has < 6% volatiles).

Cannel coal (sometimes called "candle coal") is a variety of fine-grained, high-rank coal with significant hydrogen content. It consists primarily of " exinite" macerals, now termed "liptinite".

Hilt's law

Hilt's law is a geological term that states that, in a small area, the deeper the coal, the higher its rank (grade). The law holds true if the thermal gradient is entirely vertical, but metamorphism may cause lateral changes of rank, irrespective of depth.


Average content
Substance Content
Mercury (Hg) 0.10±0.01  ppm
Arsenic (As) 1.4 - 71 ppm
Selenium (Se) 3 ppm

Early uses as fuel

Chinese coal miners in an illustration of the Tiangong Kaiwu encyclopedia, published in 1637

Coal was used by the Chinese long before it was used in Europe; coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BCE. Marco Polo, the Italian who traveled to China in 13th century, described coal—which at that time was unknown to most Europeans—as "black stones...which burn like logs", and said coal was so plentiful, people could take three hot baths a week. In Europe, the earliest reference to the use of coal as fuel is from the geological treatise On stones (Lap. 16) by the Greek scientist Theophrastus (circa 371–287 BC):

Among the materials that are dug because they are useful, those known as anthrakes [coals] are made of earth, and, once set on fire, they burn like charcoal. They are found in Liguria … and in Elis as one approaches Olympia by the mountain road; and they are used by those who work in metals.
—Theophrastus, On Stones (16) translation

Outcrop coal was used in Britain during the Bronze Age (3000–2000 BC), where it has been detected as forming part of the composition of funeral pyres. In Roman Britain, with the exception of two modern fields, "the Romans were exploiting coals in all the major coalfields in England and Wales by the end of the second century AD". Evidence of trade in coal (dated to about AD 200) has been found at the Roman settlement at Heronbridge, near Chester, and in the Fenlands of East Anglia, where coal from the Midlands was transported via the Car Dyke for use in drying grain. Coal cinders have been found in the hearths of villas and Roman forts, particularly in Northumberland, dated to around AD 400. In the west of England, contemporary writers described the wonder of a permanent brazier of coal on the altar of Minerva at Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath), although in fact easily accessible surface coal from what became the Somerset coalfield was in common use in quite lowly dwellings locally. Evidence of coal's use for iron-working in the city during the Roman period has been found. In Eschweiler, Rhineland, deposits of bituminous coal were used by the Romans for the smelting of iron ore.

No evidence exists of the product being of great importance in Britain before the High Middle Ages, after about AD 1000. Mineral coal came to be referred to as "seacoal" in the 13th century; the wharf where the material arrived in London was known as Seacoal Lane, so identified in a charter of King Henry III granted in 1253. Initially, the name was given because much coal was found on the shore, having fallen from the exposed coal seams on cliffs above or washed out of underwater coal outcrops, but by the time of Henry VIII, it was understood to derive from the way it was carried to London by sea. In 1257–59, coal from Newcastle upon Tyne was shipped to London for the smiths and lime-burners building Westminster Abbey. Seacoal Lane and Newcastle Lane, where coal was unloaded at wharves along the River Fleet, are still in existence. (See Industrial processes below for modern uses of the term.)

These easily accessible sources had largely become exhausted (or could not meet the growing demand) by the 13th century, when underground extraction by shaft mining or adits was developed. The alternative name was "pitcoal", because it came from mines. It was, however, the development of the Industrial Revolution that led to the large-scale use of coal, as the steam engine took over from the water wheel. In 1700, five-sixths of the world's coal was mined in Britain. Without coal, Britain would have run out of suitable sites for watermills by the 1830s. In 1947, there were some 750,000 miners, but by 2004, this had shrunk to some 5,000 miners working in around 20 collieries.

Uses today

Castle Gate Plant near Helper, Utah, USA
Coal rail cars

Coal as fuel

Coal is primarily used as a solid fuel to produce electricity and heat through combustion. World coal consumption was about 7.25 billion tonnes in 2010 (7.99 billion short tons) and is expected to increase 48% to 9.05 billion tonnes (9.98 billion short tons) by 2030. China produced 3.47 billion tonnes (3.83 billion short tons) in 2011. India produced about 578 million tonnes (637.1 million short tons) in 2011. 68.7% of China's electricity comes from coal. The USA consumed about 13% of the world total in 2010, i.e. 951 million tonnes (1.05 billion short tons), using 93% of it for generation of electricity. 46% of total power generated in the USA was done using coal.

When coal is used for electricity generation, it is usually pulverized and then combusted (burned) in a furnace with a boiler. The furnace heat converts boiler water to steam, which is then used to spin turbines which turn generators and create electricity. The thermodynamic efficiency of this process has been improved over time. Simple cycle steam turbines have topped out with some of the most advanced reaching about 35% thermodynamic efficiency for the entire process. Increasing the combustion temperature can boost this efficiency even further. Old coal power plants, especially " grandfathered" plants, are significantly less efficient and produce higher levels of waste heat. At least 40% of the world's electricity comes from coal, and in 2012, about one-third of the United States' electricity came from coal, down from approximately 49% in 2008. As of 2012 in the United States, use of coal to generate electricity was declining, as plentiful supplies of natural gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing of tight shale formations became available at low prices. The emergence of the supercritical turbine concept envisions running a boiler at extremely high temperatures and pressures with projected efficiencies of 46%, with further theorized increases in temperature and pressure perhaps resulting in even higher efficiencies.

In Denmark, a net electric efficiency of > 47% has been obtained at the coal-fired Nordjyllandsværket CHP Plant and an overall plant efficiency of up to 91% with cogeneration of electricity and district heating. The multifuel-fired Avedøreværket CHP Plant just outside Copenhagen can achieve a net electric efficiency as high as 49%. The overall plant efficiency with cogeneration of electricity and district heating can reach as much as 94%.

An experimental way of coal combustion is in the form of coal-water slurry fuel (CWS), which was well-developed in Russia since the days of the Soviet Union. CWS significantly reduces emissions, improving the heating value of coal. Other ways to use coal are combined heat and power cogeneration and an MHD topping cycle.

The total known deposits recoverable by current technologies, including highly polluting, low-energy content types of coal (i.e., lignite, bituminous), is sufficient for many years. However, consumption is increasing and maximal production could be reached within decades (see world coal reserves, below).

Coking coal and use of coke

Coke oven at a smokeless fuel plant in Wales, United Kingdom

Coke is a solid carbonaceous residue derived from low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal from which the volatile constituents are driven off by baking in an oven without oxygen at temperatures as high as 1,000°C (1,832°F), so the fixed carbon and residual ash are fused together. Metallurgical coke is used as a fuel and as a reducing agent in smelting iron ore in a blast furnace. The result is pig iron, and is too rich in dissolved carbon, so it must be treated further to make steel. The coking coal should be low in sulfur and phosphorus, so they do not migrate to the metal.

The coke must be strong enough to resist the weight of overburden in the blast furnace, which is why coking coal is so important in making steel using the conventional route. However, the alternative route is direct reduced iron, where any carbonaceous fuel can be used to make sponge or pelletised iron. Coke from coal is grey, hard, and porous and has a heating value of 24.8 million Btu/ton (29.6 MJ/kg). Some cokemaking processes produce valuable byproducts, including coal tar, ammonia, light oils, and coal gas.

Petroleum coke is the solid residue obtained in oil refining, which resembles coke, but contains too many impurities to be useful in metallurgical applications.


Coal gasification can be used to produce syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) gas. This syngas can then be converted into transportation fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, through the Fischer-Tropsch process. This technology is currently used by the Sasol chemical company of South Africa to make motor vehicle fuels from coal and natural gas. Alternatively, the hydrogen obtained from gasification can be used for various purposes, such as powering a hydrogen economy, making ammonia, or upgrading fossil fuels.

During gasification, the coal is mixed with oxygen and steam while also being heated and pressurized. During the reaction, oxygen and water molecules oxidize the coal into carbon monoxide (CO), while also releasing hydrogen gas (H2). This process has been conducted in both underground coal mines and in the production of town gas.

C (as Coal) + O2 + H2O → H2 + CO

If the refiner wants to produce gasoline, the syngas is collected at this state and routed into a Fischer-Tropsch reaction. If hydrogen is the desired end-product, however, the syngas is fed into the water gas shift reaction, where more hydrogen is liberated.

CO + H2O → CO2 + H2

In the past, coal was converted to make coal gas ( town gas), which was piped to customers to burn for illumination, heating, and cooking.


Coal can also be converted into synthetic fuels equivalent to gasoline or diesel by several different processes. In the direct liquefaction processes, the coal is either hydrogenated or carbonized. Hydrogenation processes are the Bergius process, the SRC-I and SRC-II (Solvent Refined Coal) processes and the NUS Corporation hydrogenation process. In the process of low-temperature carbonization, coal is coked at temperatures between 360 and 750°C (680 and 1,380°F). These temperatures optimize the production of coal tars richer in lighter hydrocarbons than normal coal tar. The coal tar is then further processed into fuels. Alternatively, coal can be converted into a gas first, and then into a liquid, by using the Fischer-Tropsch process. An overview of coal liquefaction and its future potential is available.

Coal liquefaction methods involve carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the conversion process. If coal liquefaction is done without employing either carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies or biomass blending, the result is lifecycle greenhouse gas footprints that are generally greater than those released in the extraction and refinement of liquid fuel production from crude oil. If CCS technologies are employed, reductions of 5–12% can be achieved in Coal to Liquid (CTL) plants and up to a 75% reduction is achievable when co-gasifying coal with commercially demonstrated levels of biomass (30% biomass by weight) in coal/bomass-to-liquids plants. For future synthetic fuel projects, carbon dioxide sequestration is proposed to avoid releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Sequestration adds to the cost of production. Currently, all US and at least one Chinese synthetic fuel projects, include sequestration in their process designs.

Refined coal

Refined coal is the product of a coal-upgrading technology that removes moisture and certain pollutants from lower-rank coals such as sub-bituminous and lignite (brown) coals. It is one form of several precombustion treatments and processes for coal that alter coal's characteristics before it is burned. The goals of precombustion coal technologies are to increase efficiency and reduce emissions when the coal is burned. Depending on the situation, precombustion technology can be used in place of or as a supplement to postcombustion technologies to control emissions from coal-fueled boilers.

Industrial processes

Finely ground bituminous coal, known in this application as sea coal, is a constituent of foundry sand. While the molten metal is in the mould, the coal burns slowly, releasing reducing gases at pressure, and so preventing the metal from penetrating the pores of the sand. It is also contained in 'mould wash', a paste or liquid with the same function applied to the mould before casting. Sea coal can be mixed with the clay lining (the "bod") used for the bottom of a cupola furnace. When heated, the coal decomposes and the bod becomes slightly friable, easing the process of breaking open holes for tapping the molten metal.

Production of chemicals

Coal is used extensively as feedstock to produce chemicals using processes which require substantial quantities of water. As of 2013 much of the coal to chemical production was in the People's Republic of Chinawhere environmental regulation and water management was weak.

In coal-to-chemicals, synthesis gas ( syngas)—a gaseous mixture of primarily carbon monoxide and hydrogen—is produced by gasification of coal (note: other feedstocks are also capable of gasification to produce syngas). The syngas can then be fashioned into a number of useful chemical building blocks, like methanol or acetyls for example. Ammonia and urea are significant products of coal-to-chemicals for use in fertilizers. The syngas composition—specifically, the ratio of hydrogen to carbon monoxide—is important for some downstream processes, so a water-gas shift reactor is sometimes used to change this balance.

Cultural usage

Coal is the official state mineral of Kentucky. and the official state rock of Utah; both US states have a historic link to coal mining.

Some cultures hold that children who misbehave will receive only a lump of coal from Santa Claus for Christmas in their christmas stockings instead of presents.

It is also customary and considered lucky in Scotland and the North of England to give coal as a gift on New Year's Day. This occurs as part of First-Footing and represents warmth for the year to come.

Coal as a traded commodity

In North America, Central Appalachian coal futures contracts are currently traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange (trading symbol QL). The trading unit is 1,550 short tons (1,410 t) per contract, and is quoted in U.S. dollars and cents per ton. Since coal is the principal fuel for generating electricity in the United States, coal futures contracts provide coal producers and the electric power industry an important tool for hedging and risk management.

In addition to the NYMEX contract, the IntercontinentalExchange (ICE) has European (Rotterdam) and South African (Richards Bay) coal futures available for trading. The trading unit for these contracts is 5,000 tonnes (5,500 short tons), and are also quoted in U.S. dollars and cents per ton.

The price of coal increased from around $30.00 per short ton in 2000 to around $150.00 per short ton as of September 2008. As of October 2008, the price per short ton had declined to $111.50. Prices further declined to $71.25 as of October 2010.

Environmental effects

Aerial photograph of Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill site taken the day after the event

A number of adverse health, and environmental effects of coal burning exist, especially in power stations, and of coal mining, including:

  • Coal-fired power plants shortened nearly 24,000 lives a year in the United States, including 2,800 from lung cancer. Annual health costs in Europe from use of coal to generate electricity are €42.8 billion, or $55 billion.
  • Generation of hundreds of millions of tons of waste products, including fly ash, bottom ash, and flue-gas desulfurization sludge, that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic, and other heavy metals
  • Acid rain from high sulfur coal
  • Interference with groundwater and water table levels due to mining
  • Contamination of land and waterways and destruction of homes from fly ash spills. such as the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill
  • Impact of water use on flows of rivers and consequential impact on other land uses
  • Dust nuisance
  • Subsidence above tunnels, sometimes damaging infrastructure
  • Uncontrollable coal seam fire which may burn for decades or centuries
  • Coal-fired power plants without effective fly ash capture systems are one of the largest sources of human-caused background radiation exposure.
  • Coal-fired power plants emit mercury, selenium, and arsenic, which are harmful to human health and the environment.
  • Release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, causes climate change and global warming, according to the IPCC and the EPA. Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Economic aspects

Coal (by liquefaction technology) is one of the backstop resources that could limit escalation of oil prices and mitigate the effects of transportation energy shortage that will occur under peak oil. This is contingent on liquefaction production capacity becoming large enough to satiate the very large and growing demand for petroleum. Estimates of the cost of producing liquid fuels from coal suggest that domestic U.S. production of fuel from coal becomes cost-competitive with oil priced at around $35 per barrel, with the $35 being the break-even cost. With oil prices as low as around $40 per barrel in the U.S. as of December 2008, liquid coal lost some of its economic allure in the U.S., but will probably be re-vitalized, similar to oil sand projects, with an oil price around $70 per barrel.

In China, due to an increasing need for liquid energy in the transportation sector, coal liquefaction projects were given high priority even during periods of oil prices below $40 per barrel. This is probably because China prefers not to be dependent on foreign oil, instead utilizing its enormous domestic coal reserves. As oil prices were increasing during the first half of 2009, the coal liquefaction projects in China were again boosted, and these projects are profitable with an oil barrel price of $40.

China is by far the largest producer of coal in the world. It has now become the world's largest energy consumer but relies on coal to supply about 70% of its energy needs. An estimated 5 million people work in China's coal-mining industry.

Energy density and carbon impact

The energy density of coal, i.e. its heating value, is roughly 24 megajoules per kilogram (approximately 6.7 kilowatt-hours per kg). For a coal power plant with a 40% efficiency, it takes an estimated 325 kg (720 lb) of coal to power a 100 W lightbulb for one year.

As of 2006, the average efficiency of electricity-generating power stations was 31%; in 2002, coal represented about 23% of total global energy supply, an equivalent of 3.4 billion tonnes of coal, of which 2.8 billion tonnes were used for electricity generation.

The US Energy Information Agency's 1999 report on CO2 emissions for energy generation quotes an emission factor of 0.963 kg CO2/kWh for coal power, compared to 0.881 kg CO2/kWh (oil), or 0.569 kg CO2/kWh (natural gas).

Underground fires

Thousands of coal fires are burning around the world. Those burning underground can be difficult to locate and many cannot be extinguished. Fires can cause the ground above to subside, their combustion gases are dangerous to life, and breaking out to the surface can initiate surface wildfires. Coal seams can be set on fire by spontaneous combustion or contact with a mine fire or surface fire. Lightning strikes are an important source of ignition. The coal continues to burn slowly back into the seam until oxygen (air) can no longer reach the flame front. A grass fire in a coal area can set dozens of coal seams on fire. Coal fires in China burn an estimated 120 million tons of coal a year, emitting 360 million metric tons of CO2, amounting to 2–3% of the annual worldwide production of CO2 from fossil fuels. In Centralia, Pennsylvania (a borough located in the Coal Region of the United States), an exposed vein of anthracite ignited in 1962 due to a trash fire in the borough landfill, located in an abandoned anthracite strip mine pit. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and it continues to burn underground to this day. The Australian Burning Mountain was originally believed to be a volcano, but the smoke and ash comes from a coal fire that has been burning for some 6,000 years.

At Kuh i Malik in Yagnob Valley, Tajikistan, coal deposits have been burning for thousands of years, creating vast underground labyrinths full of unique minerals, some of them very beautiful. Local people once used this method to mine ammoniac. This place has been well-known since the time of Herodotus, but European geographers misinterpreted the Ancient Greek descriptions as the evidence of active volcanism in Turkestan (up to the 19th century, when the Russian army invaded the area).

The reddish siltstone rock that caps many ridges and buttes in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and in western North Dakota is called porcelanite, which resembles the coal burning waste "clinker" or volcanic " scoria". Clinker is rock that has been fused by the natural burning of coal. In the Powder River Basin approximately 27 to 54 billion tons of coal burned within the past three million years. Wild coal fires in the area were reported by the Lewis and Clark Expedition as well as explorers and settlers in the area.

Production trends

Continental United States coal regions
Coal output in 2005
A coal mine in Wyoming, United States. The United States has the world's largest coal reserves.

In 2006, China was the top producer of coal with 38% share followed by the United States and India, according to the British Geological Survey. As of 2012 coal production in the United States was falling at the rate of 7% annually with many power plants using coal shut down or converted to natural gas; however, some of the reduced domestic demand was taken up by increased exports.

World coal reserves

The 948 billion short tons of recoverable coal reserves estimated by the Energy Information Administration are equal to about 4,196 BBOE (billion barrels of oil equivalent). The amount of coal burned during 2007 was estimated at 7.075 billion short tons, or 133.179 quadrillion BTU's. This is an average of 18.8 million BTU per short ton. In terms of heat content, this is about 57,000,000 barrels (9,100,000 m3) of oil equivalent per day. By comparison in 2007, natural gas provided 51,000,000 barrels (8,100,000 m3) of oil equivalent per day, while oil provided 85,800,000 barrels (13,640,000 m3) per day.

British Petroleum, in its 2007 report, estimated at 2006 end that there were 147 years reserves-to-production ratio based on proven coal reserves worldwide. This figure only includes reserves classified as "proven"; exploration drilling programs by mining companies, particularly in under-explored areas, are continually providing new reserves. In many cases, companies are aware of coal deposits that have not been sufficiently drilled to qualify as "proven". However, some nations haven't updated their information and assume reserves remain at the same levels even with withdrawals. Speculative projections predict that global peak coal production may occur sometime around 2025 at 30 percent above current production, depending on future coal production rates.

Of the three fossil fuels, coal has the most widely distributed reserves; coal is mined in over 100 countries, and on all continents except Antarctica. The largest reserves are found in the United States, Russia, China, Australia and India. Note the table below.

Proved recoverable coal reserves at end-2008 (million tons (teragrams))
Country Anthracite & Bituminous SubBituminous Lignite Total Percentage of World Total
 United States 108,501 98,618 30,176 237,295 22.6
 Russia 49,088 97,472 10,450 157,010 14.4
 China 62,200 33,700 18,600 114,500 12.6
 Australia 37,100 2,100 37,200 76,400 8.9
 India 56,100 0 4,500 60,600 7.0
 Germany 99 0 40,600 40,699 4.7
 Ukraine 15,351 16,577 1,945 33,873 3.9
 Kazakhstan 21,500 0 12,100 33,600 3.9
 South Africa 30,156 0 0 30,156 3.5
 Serbia 9 361 13,400 13,770 1.6
 Colombia 6,366 380 0 6,746 0.8
 Canada 3,474 872 2,236 6,528 0.8
 Poland 4,338 0 1,371 5,709 0.7
 Indonesia 1,520 2,904 1,105 5,529 0.6
 Brazil 0 4,559 0 4,559 0.5
 Greece 0 0 3,020 3,020 0.4
 Bosnia and Herzegovina 484 0 2,369 2,853 0.3
 Mongolia 1,170 0 1,350 2,520 0.3
 Bulgaria 2 190 2,174 2,366 0.3
 Pakistan 0 166 1,904 2,070 0.3
 Turkey 529 0 1,814 2,343 0.3
 Uzbekistan 47 0 1,853 1,900 0.2
 Hungary 13 439 1,208 1,660 0.2
 Thailand 0 0 1,239 1,239 0.1
 Mexico 860 300 51 1,211 0.1
 Iran 1,203 0 0 1,203 0.1
 Czech Republic 192 0 908 1,100 0.1
 Kyrgyzstan 0 0 812 812 0.1
 Albania 0 0 794 794 0.1
 North Korea 300 300 0 600 0.1
 New Zealand 33 205 333-7,000 571–15,000 0.1
 Spain 200 300 30 530 0.1
 Laos 4 0 499 503 0.1
 Zimbabwe 502 0 0 502 0.1
 Argentina 0 0 500 500 0.1
All others 3,421 1,346 846 5,613 0.7
World Total 404,762 260,789 195,387 860,938 100

Major coal producers

The reserve life is an estimate based only on current production levels and proved reserves level for the countries shown, and makes no assumptions of future production or even current production trends. Countries with annual production higher than 100 million tonnes are shown. For comparison, data for the European Union is also shown. Shares are based on data expressed in tonnes oil equivalent.

Production of Coal by Country and year (million tonnes)
Country 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Share Reserve Life (years)
 China 1834.9 2122.6 2349.5 2528.6 2691.6 2802.0 2973.0 3235.0 3520.0 49.5% 35
 United States 972.3 1008.9 1026.5 1054.8 1040.2 1063.0 975.2 983.7 992.8 14.1% 239
 India 375.4 407.7 428.4 449.2 478.4 515.9 556.0 573.8 588.5 5.6% 103
 European Union 637.2 627.6 607.4 595.1 592.3 563.6 538.4 535.7 576.1 4.2% 97
 Australia 350.4 364.3 375.4 382.2 392.7 399.2 413.2 424.0 415.5 5.8% 184
 Russia 276.7 281.7 298.3 309.9 313.5 328.6 301.3 321.6 333.5 4.0% 471
 Indonesia 114.3 132.4 152.7 193.8 216.9 240.2 256.2 275.2 324.9 5.1% 17
 South Africa 237.9 243.4 244.4 244.8 247.7 252.6 250.6 254.3 255.1 3.6% 118
 Germany 204.9 207.8 202.8 197.1 201.9 192.4 183.7 182.3 188.6 1.1% 216
 Poland 163.8 162.4 159.5 156.1 145.9 144.0 135.2 133.2 139.2 1.4% 41
 Kazakhstan 84.9 86.9 86.6 96.2 97.8 111.1 100.9 110.9 115.9 1.5% 290
World Total 5,301.3 5,716.0 6,035.3 6,342.0 6,573.3 6,795.0 6,880.8 7,254.6 7,695.4 100% 112

Major coal consumers

Countries with annual consumption higher than xx million tonnes are shown.

Consumption of Coal by Country and year (million short tons)
Country 2008 2009 2010 2011 Share
 China 2,966 3,188 3,695 4,053 50.7%
 United States 1,121 997 1,048 1,003 12.5%
 India 641 705 722 788 9.9%
 Russia 250 204 256 262 3.3%
 Germany 268 248 256 256 3.3%
 South Africa 215 204 206 210 2.6%
 Japan 204 181 206 202 2.5%
 Poland 149 151 149 162 2.0%
World Total 7,327 7,318 7,994 N/A 100%

Major coal exporters

Countries with annual gross export higher than 10 million tonnes are shown. In terms of net export the largest exporters are still Australia (328.1 millions tonnes), Indonesia (316.2) and Russia (100.2).

Exports of Coal by Country and year (million short tons)
Country 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Share
 Australia 238.1 247.6 255.0 255.0 268.5 278.0 288.5 328.1 27.1%
 Indonesia 107.8 131.4 142.0 192.2 221.9 228.2 261.4 316.2 26.1%
 Russia 41.0 55.7 98.6 103.4 112.2 115.4 130.9 122.1 10.1%
 United States 43.0 48.0 51.7 51.2 60.6 83.5 60.4 83.2 6.9%
 South Africa 78.7 74.9 78.8 75.8 72.6 68.2 73.8 76.7 6.3%
 Colombia 50.4 56.4 59.2 68.3 74.5 74.7 75.7 76.4 6.3%
 Canada 27.7 28.8 31.2 31.2 33.4 36.5 31.9 36.9 3.0%
 Kazakhstan 30.3 27.4 28.3 30.5 32.8 47.6 33.0 36.3 3.0%
 Vietnam 6.9 11.7 19.8 23.5 35.1 21.3 28.2 24.7 2.0%
 China 103.4 95.5 93.1 85.6 75.4 68.8 25.2 22.7 1.9%
 Mongolia 0.5 1.7 2.3 2.5 3.4 4.4 7.7 18.3 1.5%
 Poland 28.0 27.5 26.5 25.4 20.1 16.1 14.6 18.1 1.5%
Total 713.9 764.0 936.0 1,000.6 1,073.4 1,087.3 1,090.8 1,212.8 100%

Major coal importers

Countries with annual gross import higher than 20 million tonnes are shown. In terms of net import the largest importers are still Japan (206.0 millions tonnes), China (172.4) and South Korea (125.8).

Imports of Coal by Country and year (million short tons)
Country 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Share
 Japan 199.7 209.0 206.0 182.1 206.7 17.5%
 China 42.0 56.2 44.5 151.9 195.1 16.6%
 South Korea 84.1 94.1 107.1 109.9 125.8 10.7%
 India 52.7 29.6 70.9 76.7 101.6 8.6%
 Taiwan 69.1 72.5 70.9 64.6 71.1 6.0%
 Germany 50.6 56.2 55.7 45.9 55.1 4.7%
 Turkey 22.9 25.8 21.7 22.7 30.0 2.5%
 United Kingdom 56.8 48.9 49.2 42.2 29.3 2.5%
 Italy 27.9 28.0 27.9 20.9 23.7 1.9%
 Netherlands 25.7 29.3 23.5 22.1 22.8 1.9%
 Russia 28.8 26.3 34.6 26.8 21.8 1.9%
 France 24.1 22.1 24.9 18.3 20.8 1.8%
 United States 40.3 38.8 37.8 23.1 20.6 1.8%
Total 991.8 1,056.5 1,063.2 1,039.8 1,178.1 100%
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