The coal in western Virginia was created about 300 million years ago, when swamps in the Central Appalachian Basin created organic material faster than it could decay. Most of that coal is located in modern-day Buchanan, Wise, and Dickenson counties, on the Appalachian Plateau.
The carbon was captured in plants during the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian ("Carboniferous") periods, prior to the mountain-building "orogenies" that created the Appalachian Mountains over 200 million years ago.
In some places, the bedrock of the Appalachians and the coal beds were pushed miles to the west, as Africa-North America collided and the Appalachian Mountains were formed. The Pine Mountain thrust sheet near Kentucky was uplifted and moved perhaps 5-13 miles as pressure from the southeast squeezed the surface.1
The crust folded and often broke in the Valley and Ridge province, and some chunks of "thrust sheets" were shoved westward without significant folding. In the uplift of the Appalachians, the coal was squeezed - but not enough in the Appalachian Plateau of southwestern Virginia to fold the sedimentary beds as tightly as in the Valley and Ridge province, and not enough to create even the semi-anthracite at Merrimac Mine in Montgomery County. After the uplift, the coal beds were compressed by overlying sediments that washed off the new Appalachian Mountains.
In Montgomery County, the Merrimac Mine on Price Mountain (between Christiansburg and Blacksburg) shipped coal to Norfolk via the Virginia and Tennessee railroad east to Lynchburg in the 1850's. Tradition holds that, from there, the coal from the Merrimac Mine travelled all the way to Portsmouth and fueled the Confederate ironclad Merrimac (also spelled Merrimack) that dueled with the Union ironclad, the Monitor. The first battle between ironclads was also the first battle between ships fueled exclusively by coal.
The "coal counties" in southwestern Virginia were unable to ship their product to market by rail before the Civil War. After 1865, Northern financiers supported the extension of Virginia railroads into the timber-rich and coal-rich mountains. The Pocahontas Mine in Tazewell County has a seam of high-quality coal 13 feet thick, making it unusually easy to mine. By World War I, after the Norfolk and Western railroad built a rail line down the New River from Radford, then through West Virginia to the coal fields, the Pocahontas Mine became a major supplier of coal for the Navy.
In eastern Virginia, coal was mined in the 1700's from the Triassic Basin west of Richmond/Petersburg, near Midlothian in Chesterfield County. That Richmond basin was formed as the Atlantic Ocean opened up AFTER the Appalachian Mountains were uplifted, so the coal near Richmond is younger geologically that the coal near the West Virginia/Kentucky border.
From Chesterfield County south of Richmond, coal was carried on rails in mule-pulled carts to Manchester and Richmond. Later, mules were replaced by locomotives fueled by wood. The small size of that Midlothian coal field limited its importance to the local market. Richmond and Petersburg grew economically because of manufacturing supported by James River and Appomattox River waterpower, more than from coal brought out of Midlothian.
Source: USGS Open-File Report OF 96-92,
Coal Fields of the Conterminous United States
The coal fields of the Valley and Ridge physiographic province (including the Dora coal field in Rockingham County) had value, but were too small to support large-scale industrialization. Managers of iron furnaces in the Valley and Ridge province relied upon locally-produced charcoal, created from partially-burned wood, until after the Civil War.
Theoretically the iron producers west of the Blue Ridge could have imported coal from Eastern Virginia. However, transportation costs made use of Triassic Basic coal from the Midlothian mines infeasible. It would have been too expensive to purchase coal from the Richmond-area mines, ship the coal up the James River on the canal boats, and finally haul the coal by wagon to furnaces in the Shenandoah Valley or in the Great Valley south of the James River.
The Appalachian coal fields had national and international significance, once they were developed in the 1880's. The role of coal has been critical in shaping the growth of Southwest Virginia for over a century. The region has alternated between boom and bust economic cycles. The demand for coal surged in the 1880's, when the railroads made it possible to ship the bulky product to the commercial marketplaces. In the 1980's, the demand dropped due to Clean Air Act requirements for low-sulfur coal, and the supply of low-cost coal from Virginia has dropped with the exhaustion of the easy-to-mine coalbeds.
Because the coal fields and the oil/gas fields in Virginia are concentrated in the southwestern part of the state, the Virginia Department of Mines, Mineral and Energy used to maintain multiple offices in the region. Offices in Keen Mountain (Buchanan County) and Abingdon (Washington County) were consolidated with the offices in Lebanon (Russell County) in 2009. Separate offices still remain at Big Stone Gap (in Wise County).
The Southwest Virginia economy is still vulnerable to "bust" as well as "boom." Some mines are still operating, however. Mine owners are concerned that there will be too few trained miners if demand increases, because the children of retired miners moved away or chose other lines of work and need formal training in coal mining.
For the long term, the Department of Energy predicts that increased demand for coal will be met by other regions. Even if a "clean coal" process could be developed for using coal to meet increased demand for electricity, Virginia's coal fields are not likely to see a major jump in production. Instead, look for increased mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, or in the Indiana/Illinois/Western Kentucky coal fields).2
most coal mined commercially in Virginia comes from Buchanan, Wise, and Dickinson counties
Source: Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends
predicted growth in coal output to year 2030, showing how production from Appalachian fields is predicted to decline
Source: Department of Energy's Annual Energy Outlook 2008 with Projections to 2030
In the 2012 elections, the Republican Party accused the Obama Administration of conducting a War on Coal, and campaigned extensively in the southwestern part of Virginia. An October, 2012 rally in Grundy drew 5,500 people - when the total population in Buchanan County was less than 24,000.3
A major justification for that partisan claim was the decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and to issue other regulations that could be a "train wreck" for coal-fired power plants. However, one of the greatest long-term threats to coal was not political, but economic. As described by the Congressional Research Service, the development of natural gas combined cycle technology in the 1990's offered an alternative, cost-effective way to generate electricity at lower cost than maintaining old coal-fired power plants:4
Some Federal regulations affect the cost of mining coal, such as Mine Health Safety Administration mandates to require effective ventilation systems to minimize the potential of methane gas explosions. After 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) has imposed a fee on active mines in order to generate funds to reclaim abandoned mines.
For current coal mines, SMCRA requires coal mining companies to restore the approximate original contour of the land surface after strip mining is concluded. There is an exception for mountaintop removal operations. Operators can reshape the original topography of the site to fill valleys with the overburden removed from above the coal seam and create a level plateau of a gently rolling contour with no "highwalls."5
The EPA regulations regarding air quality and coal ash disposal have a substantial impact on the cost of burning coal to create electricity. Some "met" (metallurgical purposes) coal is mined for making steel, rather than electricity, which much of the "met" coal exported through ports at Hampton Roads.
The Buchanan Mine, near Mavisdale, celebrated its 30th anniversary of operations in 1983. Most Virginia mines operate for a shorter period before thin seams of economically-recoverable coal have been removed through the room-and-pillar method. The Buchanan Mine was the only Virginia mine using the longwall method, operating for three decades by tapping the thick, highly-valuable Pocahontas 3 coal seam. The need to vent methane to prevent explosions in the mine helped to trigger the development of coal bed methane as an energy resource in the Buchanan Coalfield, when Consol built a 50-mile pipeline in the early 1990's from Buchanan to West Virginia in order to connect with the interstate system.6
Of the 25 coal-producing states, Virginia was in the middle for tonnage of production in 2011. Wyoming mined over 20 times as much coal as Virgina. Both West Virginia and Kentucky produced over 5 times as much coal as Virginia. In 2011, the 49 surface mines in Virginia produced 55% of the state's coal, while 61 underground mines produced the remaining 45% - but those statistics vary significantly each year, as companies react to market demand and cost of extraction by opening/closing individual mines.7
The same statistics from the US Energy Information Administration showed that Virginia's mines were relatively small producers in 2011, averaging just slightly over 200,000 short tons/mine. On average, that was just 10% of the tonnage produced at each of Colorado's 10 mines. Production/mine is much higher at surface mines, and only three states (West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania) had more underground mines than Virginia. Only two states (Virginia and West Virginia) had more underground than surface mines.
in 2011, the 110 operating coal mines in Virginia produced less tonnage/mine than most other coal-producing states
Source: US Energy Information Administration, Rankings: Coal Production, 2011
The US Energy Information Administration has noted that 90% of coal mined in the United States was used to generate electricity - but the competition from natural gas was increasing:8
The last coal-fired power plant built in Virginia, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, started producing electricity in 2012. Since then, utilities have chosen natural gas rather than coal for new power plants, such as Dominion's 1,358-megawatt, $1.3 billion Brunswick County Power Station.
Even industrial facilities in southwestern Virginia are switching from coal to gas, in part to comply with Clean Air Act pollution standards and in part to reduce operating costs. In 2013, the Celanese Corporation in Giles County announced plans to replace seven coal-fired boilers with six natural gas-fired boilers. When completed, a facility that burned coal since 1939 will rely instead upon natural gas.9
coal outcrop near Mountain Lake in Giles County
coal still produces more electricity in the United States than any other source of energy
Source: US Energy Information Administration, What is the role of coal in the United States?