Ron Zurawski, State Geologist
William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower
312 Rosa L. Parks Avenue, 12th Floor
Nashville, TN 37243
Questions? Ask Geology
Tennessee's mineral industry contributed more than $1 billion in product value in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Total direct and indirect economic impact is nearly $8.8 billion annually, affecting more than 98,000 jobs. Tennessee has a history of mining more different kinds of mineral resources than any other state east of the Mississippi River except North Carolina, dating back to the late 18th century.
Energy minerals found in Tennessee include fossil fuels such as coal, oil, natural gas, and oil shales, and radioactive minerals, but not all are in deposits large enough or high-grade enough to recover under present economic conditions. Only coal, oil, and natural gas are currently being recovered, but their value is considerable, and accounted for about 16 percent ($160 million) of the State's annual mineral production value.
Tennessee's coal production is small but generally high quality. All present production is bituminous coal from the Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains regions. There is a sizable reserve of lignite in West Tennessee, more than a billion tons, but as yet there has been no mining. Because of its potential impact on ground water resources, the Tennessee Geological Survey has been working with the U.S. Geological Survey to assess problems that might arise should surface mining of those reserves ultimately be developed. Coal production accounted for more than 8.5 percent ($115 million) of Tennessee's annual mineral production value.
Tennessee's oil and gas production is small by national standards. Oil production totaled about 290,000 barrels in 2011, down from more than one million barrels in 1982. Gas production was close to zero before 1977, when pipelines first reached the fields, but rose by 1984 to more than five billion cubic feet per year. It declined to slightly less than five billion cubic feet in 2011. Its value ($20 million) was about 80 percent of that of the oil production ($25 million).
Tennessee is the leading producer of ball clay in the nation. Ball clay is used primarily in the manufacture of dinnerware, floor and wall tile, pottery, and sanitary ware, and accounted for about three percent ($27 million) of Tennessee's annual mineral production value.
Construction materials mined or quarried in Tennessee include dimension stone (sandstone and marble), crushed stone, limestone and clay for making cement, and sand and gravel. While some of these are considered to be mineral commodities, rather than minerals in the strictest sense, they are all a very important part of Tennessee's mineral industry. Collectively, these materials accounted for nearly 53 percent ($531 million) of the state's annual mineral production value, and production of one or more occurs in virtually every county in the State.
Zinc is another mineral of considerable importance to Tennessee's economy. Mines and mills are being operated in Grainger, Jefferson, and Knox counties in East Tennessee, and in Smith County in Middle Tennessee. Tennessee is currently the second largest producer of zinc in the nation. An electrolytic zinc plant in Clarksville operates at 105,000 tons per year, and is the only primary zinc producer in the U.S. This plant produces primary cadmium as a by-product during roasting and leaching of the zinc concentrate, along with sulphuric acid, copper by-products, synthetic gypsum, and germanium concentrate. The Smith county mines produce the highest-grade zinc concentrate in the world at 62 percent and are also one of the world's largest sources of germanium, a critical and strategic material that is used in fiber optics, infrared systems, and semiconductors.