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Coal: Classroom Activities

Trends in U.S. Coal Production and Consumption


Goal

To understand trends in coal production and use in the United States.

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Background Information

In the United States, coal is mined from three coal-producing regions: the Appalachian Coal Region, the Interior Coal Region, and the Western Coal Region. Coal production in the Appalachian Coal Region decreased overall from 2000-2009. Coal production in the Interior Coal Region remained relatively constant during the same time while it increased overall in the Western Coal Region. Since 2000, coal production in the United States has generally remained the same.

Coal has many important uses. The largest single consumer of coal is the electrical power industry. Coal is also used in industries such as paper production, cement and ceramic manufacture, iron and steel production, and chemical manufacture for heating and for steam generation. Another use for coal is in the manufacture of coke. Coke is nearly pure carbon produced when soft coal is heated in the absence of air. It is widely used in steel making and in certain chemical processes.

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Activity Overview

Students examine coal production and coal consumption data for the United States. They graph the data to determine recent trends in coal production and use. They then extrapolate the trends in the data to estimate coal production in the year 2059.

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Materials and Equipment

graph paper

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Activity

Table of Coal production
Source: The American Geological Institute, EarthComm: Project-Based Space and Earth System Science, 2nd Edition, Armonk, New York: It's About Time, 2012, pg. 737.

Part A: Coal Production

  1. Ask students to examine Table 1 showing recent trends in coal production in the United States during a 10-year period.
  2. Have students draw a graph that represents the data. The graph should show trends in coal production for the three major coal producing regions, and the trend in total coal production. Have them leave room at the end of the graph to project coal production for the next 50 years.
  3. Ask students to extrapolate the trends in the data to the year 2059. (To do this, they will have to produce a best-fit line through the data points and estimate what they think the trend in coal production will be.)
  4. Using the data in the table and their graphs, have students answer the following:
    1. On the basis of your projections only, which coal-producing region do you predict will be the first to exhaust its supply of coal? In what year will this happen?
      Students should notice that the rate of production in the Appalachian region has decreased. They might assume that this region will run out first because production is slowing down in this region as coal reserves run out.
    2. Identify at least three factors that might affect actual coal production.
      Answers will vary.

Part B: Coal Consumption

Table of Coal consuption
Source: The American Geological Institute, EarthComm: Project-Based Space and Earth System Science, 2nd Edition, Armonk, New York: It's About Time, 2012, pg. 737.
  1. Ask students to examine Table 2 showing recent trends in coal consumption in the United States during a 10-year period.
  2. Have students make a graph that shows coal consumption for electric power, using the data from Table 2. Have them leave room at the end of the graph to project coal consumption for electric power for the next 50 years.
  3. Ask students to extrapolate the trend in the data to the year 2059.
  4. Using the data in the table and their graphs, have students answer the following:
    1. On the basis of recent trends, how much coal will be needed for electric power generation in the year 2029? In 2059?
      Answers will vary depending upon the extrapolation of the data.
    2. Coal consumption for electric power decreased at an average rate of 2.53 percent per year between the years 2005 and 2009. On the basis of this average, predict coal consumption for electric power for the years 2019 and 2029 (Hint: Begin by multiplying the value for the year 2009 by 0.9747. This gives you a prediction for the year 2010.)
      If the decrease remains at 2.53% per year, coal consumption for electric power in 2019 will be 714.80 million short tons. In 2029, coal consumption for electric power will be 560.95 million short tons.
    3. Assume that by conserving electricity, the decrease in average rate of coal consumption doubles to 5.06 percent per year. Predict the amount of coal consumed in 2019 and 2029.
      If consumption decreases at 5.06%, coal consumption for electric power in 2019 will be 557.19 million short tons. In 2029, coal consumption will be 331.51 million short tons.
  5. Have students draw a new graph that shows their predictions of total coal production and coal consumption for electric power from 2009 to 2059. They can do this by superimposing their extrapolated curves.
  6. Have students draw a third curve that takes into account their predictions in coal consumption assuming, through conservation practices, a decrease in the average rate of coal consumption doubling to 5.06 percent per year.
  7. Using the data in the table and their graphs, have students answer the following:
    1. Do you predict that consumption will exceed production? If so, how do you think that the shortfall in production will be made up? Or do you predict that production will exceed consumption? If so, do you think that that is a reasonable or likely scenario?
      Answers will vary depending upon earlier predictions.
    2. In what ways do you think that production and consumption are related? Does production drive consumption? If so, how and to what extent? Or does consumption drive production? If so, how and to what extent?
      Consumption and production are related. If coal is not being produced, it cannot be consumed. Consumption is driven by demand, and production is driven by consumption. If production is difficult, expensive, or even impossible, consumption will be low even if there is potential demand.

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