While coal use is in decline in this country, exports are poised to storm past the 30-year-old record set in 1981.
The graph shows our coal exports in millions of short tons back to 1949. The horizontal axis represents exports by year from 1949 to 2011 with a projection for 2012. The vertical axis represents exports in millions of short tons, from zero to 140. The black horizontal line is the record of 113 million short tons set in 1981. Exports for the first half of 2012 reached 67 million tons and the Energy Information Administration is predicting 125 million tons by the end of the year, more than 10 percent above the old record. Other estimates are running as high as 133 million tons.
The shift has occurred abruptly. The annual figure averaged only 56 million tons from 2001 to 2011. But a spurt began in 2010 and risen rapidly since then. Interestingly, the run-up to 113 million tons in 1981 occurred during a similar period of turmoil. Our overall consumption of coal rose rapidly when the Carter Administration promoted coal as the solution to the 1970s Energy Crisis. Exports rose as the same energy shortages occurred around the world. Overseas shipments drifted down slowly again during the 1990s, reaching a low point in 2003. Oddly enough the current rise has occurred during a period when the Obama Administration was discouraging the consumption of coal. Domestic coal companies have responded by seeking foreign markets. They have been helped by increasing coal consumption in Asia, especially since Japan has decided to forego nuclear power.
Environmental groups oppose coal exports and are trying to block a new export West Coast terminal at Coos Bay, Oregon. But Gulf Coast ports are humming, shipping coal through the Panama Canal. The rise is foreign sales may offer some compensation to an industry that has generally been hard-hit by the decline of coal use in this country.