Coal in America: Chronicling and Analyzing Its Economic and Social History (2018-2019)


Coal has been an historically important energy resource in the United States. It remains important in many parts of the country, but has experienced a recent severe decline that seems likely to continue.

Coal is still king in many parts of the U.S., even if it sometimes seems like the throne has been abdicated. Miners and their families no longer live in company-owned housing like their early-20th-century forebears, but the coal industry is often still the nucleus around which their social, economic and political lives revolve. It informs identities and offers relatively high wages in areas where decently paying jobs are scarce. In good times, those wages circulate through the local economy, bolstering businesses and generating tax revenue to support schools and much-needed public services. These are not, however, good times. Coal employment has been in a tailspin for the past three decades, even as annual production figures have remained at or above record highs. Since 1980, the industry has shed more than 160,000 jobs, with 60,000 of those coming since 2011. Trends in power generation and in the mining industry itself point toward a world that will likely soon need less coal, and even fewer coal miners.

Project Description

The advent of abundant and inexpensive natural gas has been a significant factor behind coal’s decline, but environmental regulations have likely played a role as well. Still, there has been surprisingly little research into the causes and consequences of this seemingly epochal transition in U.S. energy consumption. This Bass Connections project will help address this gap by examining both quantitative and qualitative data related to coal production, consumption and employment to better understand the social, economic and political dimensions of coal’s decline.

The project team will explore the trend away from coal toward other energy sources and the factors influencing coal-related employment. This exploration will be through interdisciplinary research based on two similarly rich but fundamentally distinct databases: U.S. economic census records of coal production and employment; and a set of oral histories gathered from the central Appalachian coalfields by a Story+ team in Summer 2018.

Fusing methodologies of historians and economists, the team will use both qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the impact of regulation, technological developments and market competition on the consumption and production of coal and coal employment, while also investigating the social, cultural and political shifts within mining communities that have accompanied the long and still incomplete transition away from coal.

Anticipated Outcomes

Research to support applications for large research grants and eventual publication of a coauthored monograph surveying economic history of U.S. coal industry in late 20th century; data analysis and visualizations for project’s companion website; coauthored articles, chapters and conference presentations

Student Opportunities

Alongside a richer understanding of energy markets, regulation and law, undergraduates will gain experience in quantitative and qualitative research, data analysis and visualization, research communication and team-based project management. These opportunities will also be available for graduate students, as will the chance to build project management skills and gain experience supervising undergraduate research.

The ideal team will include 8-10 undergraduates with backgrounds in history, energy, the environment, economics or public policy, plus 1 Ph.D.-level graduate student from any one of those disciplines to serve as a project manager.

After an initial boot camp period, in which students will be instructed in the project’s background and methods, the team will divide into discrete but interlinked sub-teams, each of which will be asked to complete specific research tasks. A Ph.D. student will guide the group through each phase of the research and assist with assessment and integration of each sub-team’s research.

Student grades will be based on reflection exercises, group writing and group assessments.

Duke undergraduates and graduate students can apply for this project team beginning on January 24. The priority deadline is February 16 at 5:00 p.m.

Students may be interested in a related Story+ summer project, Coal and America: Stories from the Central Appalachian Coalfields (Summer Session I, 2018); that application is open from January 12 until the team is filled. Application review begins on February 5.


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Instructional period on background and research methodologies; research stage during which team members will explore the data and oral histories in sub-teams and share their findings at regular team meetings (November 2018-February 2019);
  • Spring 2019: Complete work of sub-teams; analysis/writing phase during which students will prepare the team’s final report


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Lori Bennear, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy*
Jonathon Free, Energy Initiative*
Brian Murray, Nicholas School of the Environment

* denotes team leader


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