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Background Information:

As we gather and use energy for our many needs, we create environmental problems we do not intend. Such consequences occur during all phases of extracting, transporting and using energy resources. Energy resources such as coal, oil or uranium are buried deep in the ground. Extracting them can damage local ecosystems by changing water flow, disrupting wildlife, polluting water and eroding soil.

In the activity that students do, the chocolate chips represent coal in the ground in mountainous areas where geologic forces have folded and broken the ground so that the layers of coal are no longer flat and continuous. This mining activity represents open-pit mining where the coal deposits are more discontinuous and patchy than the flat and continuous beds found in the prairies of Alberta and the central United States.

Coal is the compressed remains of ancient plants. For millions of years, buried plants were heated and compressed. They were converted to a material that is mostly carbon. Because coal is made from ancient forests, we call it a "fossil fuel." Oil and natural gas are the other fossil fuels. Coal is more abundant than oil or natural gas.

All coal is not the same. The more heat and pressure it received while being formed, the more it changed. Some coal is not greatly changed from the original plants. That coal is soft and brown and is called lignite. Two types that changed more are called sub-bituminous and bituminous. Anthracite is the name of the hard, black coal that changed the most from its plant form.
The harder coals make better fuels and are more valuable, but they are not as common.
If possible, coal is mined from a large hole in the ground called a surface mine. That is the cheapest method. If the layers of coal are flat and smooth, surface mining can remove them in long strips. These mines are called strip mines. If the coal deposit is broken up, the surface mine is called an open-pit mine.

Coal is also mined underground with verticle shafts that tunnel deep under the surface. Corridors lead horizontally from the shafts to reach the coal. Underground mining is necessary when the coal is too deep or too hard to reach for surface mining. Some underground mines are many kilometers long. In Nova Scotia, they extend under the ocean. Underground mines are more expensive and more dangerous to miners.

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