United States exporters of thermal coal earned more than $5 billion in 2023 as they shipped out more than 32.5 million metric tons of the high-polluting power fuel, data from ship-tracking firm Kpler shows.
The thermal coal export earnings were the second-highest since 2017, following 2022’s $5.7 billion. The total volumes were the highest since 2018 and came as U.S. power producers cut the amount of coal used in electricity generation to the lowest this century, data from energy think tank Ember shows.
The diverging trends between shrinking domestic coal use and robust coal exports open the United States to charges of hypocrisy given the country’s ambitions to become a global leader in energy transition and pollution reduction efforts.
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A key driver behind the push for overseas sales has been a steady decline in coal use for power generation at home.
Between 2013 and 2023, U.S. coal-fired power generation dropped by 57.5% from 1,581 terawatt hours (TWh) to 672.5 TWh, Ember data shows.
Over that time span, coal’s share of the U.S. electricity generation mix declined from 39% to 19% as natural gas and renewable power gained share on U.S. electricity grids.
Pollution reduction efforts were a major impetus behind the reductions in coal use, and annual emissions of carbon dioxide from U.S. coal-fired power generation dropped by 57%, or 865 million metric tons, during the 2013 to 2023 window.
As some of the coal-fired power was replaced by natural gas, total power sector emissions fell by less than coal-fired emissions, but were still about 500 million tons lower in 2023 than in 2013, Ember data shows.
To make up for demand losses at home, coal miners and trading firms have stepped up sales of U.S. coal to international buyers, especially in Asia where coal remains the primary fuel source in power generation.
India was by far the largest destination for U.S. coal shipments in 2023, with the 11.8 million tons delivered there accounting for 36.3% of total U.S. thermal exports.
The volume shipped to India – the world’s largest coal producer and consumer after China – was up 130% from 2022, according to Kpler.
India is expected to remain a keen buyer of international coal as the country’s domestic reserves are being depleted and power firms rely on coal for about 75% of India’s electricity.
However, India is also the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) from energy use behind China and the United States, according to the Energy Institute of World Energy, and so is viewed as a key contributor to climate change.
Other major destinations for U.S. thermal coal in 2023 include The Netherlands (13.4% of total), Egypt (8.5%), Morocco (6.7%) and Japan (6.0%).
China was the 6th largest buyer of U.S. coal, taking in 1.5 million tonnes, or 4.6% of the total, Kpler data shows.
Supplies into the Netherlands – a major entry point into Europe – are expected to decline as Europe’s power markets ramp up electricity generation from renewables.
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But thermal coal demand is expected to keep growing in North Africa and Asia in line with economic growth and energy consumption trends, and so should remain a lucrative market for exporters able to supply reliable quantities and grades.
GROWING SHARE OF A SHRINKING PIE
It is unclear how well placed U.S. coal miners and exporters will be to meet that enduring coal demand.
In response to the roughly 44% decline in coal use for electricity generation since 2017 U.S. coal production dropped from around 775 million short tons to 436 million tons in 2023, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
But total exports of all coal types – including metallurgical coal used by steel makers – have only fallen by about 24% over the same period, leaving exporters with a growing share of U.S. coal production in recent years.
In 2023, a record 17% of total U.S. coal production was exported, compared to around 12.5% in 2017, EIA data shows.
That share may continue to expand over the near term if domestic demand falls more quickly than domestic mining output.
But if U.S. authorities restrict coal output further amid intensifying social pressure against the fuel’s extraction and sale, then U.S. export volumes will likely gradually dry up.
Ironically for climate trackers, any drop in U.S. shipments is unlikely to result in less overall coal consumption.
Rather, current buyers of U.S. coal will likely be forced to switch to other sellers such as Indonesia and Russia, who generally can only supply lower grades of coal than the United States.
Those alternative coal sources may emit even greater volumes of emissions than U.S. coal when burned for power.
Source: Reuters (Reporting by Gavin Maguire; Editing by Jamie Freed)