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Energy Facts: U.S. Coal Consumption Is Down But Are Exports Eroding Climate Benefits?

Jesse Jenkins's picture

Jesse is a researcher, consultant, and writer with ten years of experience in the energy sector and expertise in electric power systems, electricity regulation, energy and climate change policy...

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  • Mar 29, 2013

Time again for Friday Energy Facts

U.S. coal consumption has fallen by 237 million short tons from 2005 to 2012, a drop of more than 21 percent. The decline in coal consumption was driven almost entirely by trends in the electric power sector, where low-cost natural gas, and to a lesser extent, growing renewable electricity production, displaced coal-fired power plants. 

The sharp drop in coal consumption has also been a major contributor to declining U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which stood 13 percent below 2005 levels in 2012.

Yet while coal use declined at home, coal exports increased and global prices for coal fell, prompting some to worry: are the climate gains associated with declining U.S. coal consumption simply being offset by booming exports? 

To find out, I consulted the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As the graphics below indicate, U.S. exports of coal increased by 82 million short tons from 2005 to 2012, enough to offset roughly 38 percent of the decline in domestic coal use. Increased exports offset a larger share (55 percent) of the declines in U.S. coal consumption from 2005 to 2011.

(Where are all those exports going? EIA has the full scoop here, but the short answer is Europe.)

Change in U.S. coal consumption and exports, 2005 to 2011 and 2012

In short: exports are indeed on the rise, but not enough to fully offset the climate benefits of declining U.S. coal consumption.

However, a full accounting of the net climate benefits of declining coal use would also have to account for emissions of CO2 and methane associated with increased natural gas use, which is responsible for much of the 2005-2012 decline in coal combustion, particularly in the U.S. power sector. That will have to be an analysis for another day…

U.S. coal consumption and exports, 2005 to 2011 and 2012

*A note on methodology: coal export data was only available form the EIA for the first three quarters of 2012 (January through September). Year-on-year change in coal exports for the first three quarters of 2012 relative to the first three quarters of 2011 was an increase of 22.8 percent. To extrapolate for the full year, I assume that total annual exports in 2012 are an equivalent percentage above total annual 2011 exports. 

Grant McDermott's picture
Grant McDermott on Mar 29, 2013

Hi Jesse,

We appear to be converging on very similar topics. My post here might interest you.

(Bottom line: Increased U.S. coal exports are unlikely to undermine the climate gains achieved by the country’s shift to shale gas.)

I’ll soon be posting a second article on the long-term climate effects of gas, including a look at the much-debated issue of methane leakages.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Mar 31, 2013


A key issue here are the prospects of continued coal use in Europe. With the exception of Germany (almost 8 GW of new coal in 2012-13) European countries are not building new coal plants. And because of the Large Combustion Plant Directive a large number of coal plants are shutting (5 GW in the UK alone this month).

So this export market is going to contract pretty quickly. Another reg kicking in around 2016 is the Industrial Emissions Directive. This will see further sharp cuts in coal capacity. Unless other EU countries follow the lead Germany appears to be taking, building flexible coal plants to back up renewables, the EU coal market is all downhill from here.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 1, 2013


By the numbers U.S. coal exports emissions at 119 MMT/CO2 almost exactly offset gains made from the switch to natural gas (114 MMT/CO2).

I wish I could share your enthiusiasm for Germany’s progress with renewables. I don’t believe they will make any significant dent in Germany’s coal use for the next decade, especially if nuclear plants are taken offline as scheduled.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Thank Jesse for the Post!
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