2012 U.S. Coal Exports Reach Record High

By Nate Aden

In 2012 the U.S. exported 114 million metric tons of coal (126 million short tons) — 12 percent more than the previous high set in 1981. The rapid rise of U.S. coal exports exceeded the Department of Energy’s forecast, published in the 2012 Annual Energy Outlook, by 30 percent.

Coal export growth is driven by historically low domestic natural gas prices, diminishing U.S. coal demand, and growing use globally over other primary energy sources. On a global level, the International Energy Agency forecasts that coal will rival oil as the world’s top primary energy source by 2017. Analysis by the World Resources Institute found that more than 1,100 coal-fired power plants are currently being proposed for development globally. Given that the U.S. has more proven coal reserves than any other country, there is large potential for continued export growth.

Source: EIA, Annual Energy Review 2012; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census.

Where is U.S. coal going?

In 2012, the largest destination for U.S. coal exports was the Netherlands, followed by the United Kingdom. The European Union accounted for 45 percent of U.S. 2012 coal exports by volume. China was the third largest destination, and Asia accounted for 26 percent of 2012 American coal exports.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census. Note: The figure lists the volume of 2012 U.S. coal exports by destination country in million metric tons. The 26 countries with imports of at least 500,000 metric tons are labeled; in 2012 the U.S. exported coal to 76 countries.

Since 2000, annual U.S. coal exports to Canada have dropped by more than 10 million metric tons, while exports to the Netherlands, the U.K., China, and South Korea have at least tripled. Rising European coal imports are driven largely by natural gas price disparities and low carbon prices in the E.U. emissions trading system (ETS). China switched from net international coal exports to imports in 2009, and now serves as the world’s largest coal-importing country. In 2012 China imported 235 million metric tons of coal — more than double total U.S. 2012 coal exports. Long-term demand drivers suggest continued growth of Chinese coal imports. In 2012, the U.S. was the 8th largest source of Chinese coal imports behind Indonesia, Australia, Mongolia, Russia, Vietnam, South Africa, and North Korea.

What’s the impact of U.S. coal exports?

Coal use creates a range of environmental, economic, and political impacts. While the U.S. has introduced policies to limit the health impacts of coal-fired electricity generation, local populations in other countries absorb more of the total costs of coal use. Until commercial-scale carbon capture and sequestration technology is available, coal will be the most greenhouse-gas-intensive primary energy source.

Burning the coal exported by the U.S. in 2012 generated 292 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to the average annual greenhouse gas emissions from 55 million passenger vehicles, or to 75 coal-fired power plants — and in excess of the 2009 greenhouse gas emissions of the state of New York.

The marginal impact of U.S. coal exports on global greenhouse gas emissions largely depends on regional market dynamics. Some academics have argued that expanded U.S. coal exports to Asia will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by raising domestic coal prices. Environmental organizations and other academics point to the price elasticity of Chinese coal demand, arguing that exports will increase total coal consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Within the U.S., studies indicate that investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy would generate twice as many jobs as investing in expanded coal export capacity. From a market perspective, 2012 U.S. coal exports were not always price competitive in Asia. Whereas Chinese coal imports from Indonesia (China’s largest supplier) had an average price of $90 per metric ton, and China’s world average coal import price was $110 per metric ton in 2012, the average price of U.S. coal in China was $130 per metric ton. From a Chinese coal import perspective, U.S. prices were roughly equivalent to Australia and significantly lower than Canada. Compared to domestic resources, coal imports from the U.S. can have a beneficial impact in China due to the low sulfur content of Powder River Basin coal and a safer mining industry in the U.S., though these benefits do not hold up in a comparison with renewable sources of electricity.

What’s the future of U.S. coal exports?

While the future of U.S. natural gas prices is uncertain, the domestic shift away from coal is likely to be sustained by coal power plant retirements and long-term investments in gas-fired electricity generation and renewables. Recent data indicate that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are diminishing while global emissions continue to grow. However, national greenhouse gas emission inventories currently do not include emissions related to fossil fuel exports.

According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. has a 440 billion-metric-ton demonstrated coal reserve base. With current technologies, consumption of the U.S. coal reserve base, either domestically or through exports, would exceed the global carbon budget of 1,000 Gt CO2 associated with a 75 percent probability of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The ongoing rise of global greenhouse gas emissions combines with the immense fossil fuel resources of the U.S. to necessitate that climate risks be integrated into decision making.

To understand the full implications of U.S. coal exports for global emissions and the domestic economy, it may be useful for a government institution such as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to convene an inter-agency study of expected impacts and policy options. Proposed expansion of U.S. coal export capacity makes the future of exports murky, but it’s clear that utilization of coal resources is one of a few important decisions that will determine our global climate future.

Nate Aden is a PhD student with the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley. The information presented here does not reflect any external affiliations.

20 Responses to 2012 U.S. Coal Exports Reach Record High

  1. Joan Savage says:

    Coal trading within the US is often to meet emission standards.

    [Low sulfur coal from Power River Basin can be blended with high sulfur coal from Indiana to help satisfy limits for sulfur dioxide emissions.]

    How does the type of US coal shipped abroad affect the export market?

    Are they blending US coal in their power plants, making steel, or what?

    I appreciate very much the pie chart on international markets, but it doesn’t address the various international end purposes.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    For example, the Ukraine has obtained Chinese support to shift from natural gas to coal.

    The Ukraine has substantial coal reserves.

    Yet Ukraine imports coal from the US? Why!!?

  3. David Goldstein says:

    It is these macro trends- of US Coal export and Chinese/Indian coal usage projection, not to mention IEA energy usage projections- that really and truly make me ‘gulp’ as a climate activist. When all is said and done, the fossil fuels simply have to stay in the ground. That idea is so crushingly antithetical to growth capitalism on so many levels that my gut feel is that climate activism is mostly laying the groundwork so that when truly catastrophic change is upon us (it is indeed hard to imagine what that might entail)…and humans are finally ready to even begin consider ‘leaving it in the ground’…that there will be some framework in place for the transfer. So be it- if that turns out to be the best we can do, then that is how it is.

  4. Endofmore says:

    we face an uncertain future, but must also deal with today’s reality.
    Coal is our problem, up close and personal. Even a sunshine miner, stripping mountain tops, is faced with a choice: either carry on with what he’s doing or face a future on welfare. I’m not supporting pollution, or denying climate change, just telling it like it is.
    The miner will fight to keep his job, despite knowing that coal is poisoning his land and air. He wants his share of our lifestyle, and will hang on to what he has, no matter how meagre. He will listen to the politicians who offer him a choice between job or climate. He gets paid for tons extracted which makes him just as much a part of our economic system as a Wall St. banker, demanding more.

  5. What a great piece, to nail down and present these facts together in such a coherent way!

    At the same time, it’s probably a touch soft on coal. For instance, I’d take this sentence:

    “Until commercial-scale carbon capture and sequestration technology is available, coal will be the most greenhouse-gas-intensive primary energy source.”

    And tighten it up a bit along these lines:

    ‘Unless carbon capture and sequestration technology becomes available on a vast industrial scale, coal will be the most greenhouse-gas-intensive primary energy source – although natural gas may be just as bad (or worse) in the short term of a few decades, depending on rates of methane leakage.’

    I also really appreciate the last paragraph. As mild as it sounds, relative to the degree and urgency of change we need, I think it represents the kind of very specific incremental moves that are important in shifting the vast Federal bureaucracy.

    And then there’s the EU, the biggest US coal customer, and China, the fastest growing.

    Wow, do we ever need to change?!

  6. David Goldstein says:

    Just imagine if, as a species, we were truly devoting our awesome potential creativity and determination to the climate change arena. Perhaps we would create a ‘First In Line’ program. Our President would go on national TV and announce: ‘The science unambiguously states that we must drastically reduce carbon emissions and coal is the most carbon intensive fuel we have. The federal government, in conjunction with the relevant states and in partnership with corporations announce the First In Line program. Beginning immediately, those who work in the fossil fuel industries and especially in the coal sector will be given first priority and access in job training for the massive deployment of solar, wind and smart grid implementation that I am also announcing. Where possible, we will seek to construct the New Energy economy in the actually impacted states (e.g. West Virginia). Where it is not, the First In Line workers will be given aid toward relocating to their new employment area.” Imagine that- prioritizing already experienced energy workers to the benefit of all!…wow, nice dream.

  7. David, I like the slogan. I’ve said that we got into this situation as a nation, and we have to get out as a nation. It’s not fair to burden one part of the country, whether defined by geography (e.g., the Appalachians and the Midwest) or livelihood (e.g., coal miners) with the cost of getting out. It’s a national problem.

    I think we have to be even more aggressive, though. We have to use the (so far aspirational) carbon tax to buy down the infrastructure (like coal-fired power plants, and yes, even the coal mines themselves) as well as provide job training. This obviously can’t be a dollar-for-dollar deal. We all have to sacrifice. I’m just suggesting that the tax proceeds be used to level out the pain.

  8. This also illustrates the limits of the NG displacement approach. The coal that’s being displaced by NG is being exported. It’s pretty much that simple. For NG to really drive coal-based GHGs downward, we’d have to restrict coal exports.

    Otherwise, all new fossil fuels produced (read: shale gas and oil) are simply additive. The displacement paradigm is chimerical.

  9. Rob Goodwin says:

    MR. Aden,

    When you analyize the market viability of coal exports to asia its very important to treat Coking Coal and Thermal Coal as different products. Coking coal is often double the price of Thermal Coal. On the Eastern Export Market Side of things Coking coal has made up the majority of exports.

    Coking coal and Thermal coal can be like comparing apples to oranges. The recent desire to move as much thermal coal as possible into the export market is the driver behind increasing export capasity. There appears to be sufficient export capacity near researves of Coking Coal Already.

    The question is what is the average price of Chinese Thermal Coal imports from the US. Excluding Coking coal would bring this price down.

  10. It’s all fungible. It probably has to with specific forward contracts with their specific price structures, which include transport costs. Also, coal has a very wide range of quality, which affects the kinds of applications it can be used for (e.g., metallurgy vs power plants). So Ukrainian coal may have particular properties, as might the US coal they import, which drives which markets are appropriate for it.

    The idea, of course, is that over the long run, the market will sort out the best, highest, most efficient use. And it would, if the price signals were anywhere close to what the real costs are. But since the carbon costs of fossils are externalized, they don’t factor into the calculus.

    Other pollution costs do. That’s a big reason we’re seeing a decline in coal-fired generation in the US. The cost of reducing NOx and SO2 drive the economic decision to switch to NG, which produces very little of either.

    Shipping coal to Newcastle? Happens all the time, across all commodities. The US exports gasoline, for example. The refined products of KXL crude would likely be exported, for the most part. It’s the free market. Each player maximizes its own particular economics, which are contingent on many, many factors, including existing contracts.

  11. Endofmore says:

    you’re both indulging in wishpolitics
    I wish you well

  12. David Goldstein says:

    Hey, I did call it a ‘dream’, more meaning the kind you wake up from not so much the kind that comes true!

  13. Just not giving up before the fact. Trying to generate ideas that might percolate into a wider consciousness.

    Ideas work. We decided to cease racial segregation. I’m sure many people said that was unrealistic (“wishful”) back in the day.

    I fully recognize this idea is likely to be overtaken by events long before it has a chance to rise to something actionable. Still, why are we here but to offer such ideas? Commiseration is good, but not enough. For me, anyway.

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Kevin, are you aware that China has placed a cap on coal usage by 2015? That this is realistic is disputed by the Australian coal industry desperately trying to maintain confidence in its products as prices are dropping. But there is no doubt about the plan, ME

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, it would really be easy to do, but they won’t, which is rather mysterious. This ‘Why?’ has become the most crucial question in human history.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Carbon capture and storage remains a propaganda chimaera, decades away from realisation, if it is even possible.

  17. rollin says:

    Just tax exports heavily and use it to build more solar and wind power installations. Might as well tax coal and natural gas internally too. That would get the solar wind movement on the road.

  18. Paul Klinkman says:

    If our country only mines the gigatons of carbon and we don’t burn it permanently into the atmosphere ourselves, someone else does that part, is that a moral enough climate stance for us?

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thats why a global, solid, verifiable climate treaty is essential Paul, ME

  20. Ozonator says:

    Deniers get paid to say no major hurricane ecosystem has hit the US in years. Like coal, AGW exports are also up. TD “Crising’ kills 2, affects 146,041” (, 2/21/13). With damage reports yet to come in, “Intense tropical cyclone Haruna struck Madagascar at about 18:00 GMT on 21 February.” (Source: Content Partner // Tropical Storm Risk;, 2/22/13).