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The commercial development of Utah’s state rock, coal, by the Union Pacific and Denver and Rio Grande Western railroads began in the late 1800s. Ninety-five percent of the coal produced in Utah today is used to generate electricity, and recent developments in coal-bed methane characterization and extraction are promising for the state’s economy.

The Emery coalfield in central Utah consists of sediments deposited along the western margin of the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway and subsequently deformed during the Laramide orogeny and Basin and Range deformation. The coal-field contains important methane and bituminous deposits in the Ferron Sandstone Member of the Cretaceous Mancos Shale.

Ferron coal beds exposed on the northwest-dipping western flank of the San Rafael Swell have been burning for decades. The collapse of strata overlying the Ferron as a consequence of burning provides conduits for the circulation of oxygen, thereby promoting the smoldering that can be observed today. Dating clinker in the Emery coalfield would provide useful information about the timing of certain geologic events in Utah on a local and perhaps regional scale.

Federal agencies and laws help safeguard coal mining in the United States today. The environmental effects of Utah’s natural burning and mine-related coal fires are unknown. However, such fires elsewhere are responsible for pollution, including acid rain, and they are responsible for a variety of human diseases.

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