U.S. coal exports expected to break 31-year record in 2012

U.S. coal exports in 2012 are expected to break a 31 year-long record level of almost 113 million tons. The record was set back in 1981.

Exports for the first half of 2012 reached almost 67 million tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). If exports continue at their current pace, the U.S. will export 133 million tons in 2012, although EIA forecasts exports of 125 million tons. U.S. coal exports averaged 56 million tons per year in the decade preceding 2011.

Total U.S. coal exports, including both steam and metallurgical coal, were almost 13 million tons in June 2012, surpassing April’s record by less than one million tons and the third straight month of exports surpassing 12 million tons.

Due to the slowing global economy, EIA does not expect coal exports to continue at their current pace because of a drop in exports to China, the world’s largest coal consumer. August exports show a 2 million ton drop from June’s levels, but they are still 13 percent above August 2011 levels.

The increase in exports marks a significant reversal from the general downward trajectory of U.S. coal exports beginning in the early 1990s, which bottomed out in 2002 to just under 40 million tons, the lowest level since 1961. Coal exports in 2011 rose 171 percent from 2002, with only a brief interruption by the global recession. Export growth sped up after the recession, with consecutive post-2009 growth of more than 20 million tons per year. Current data for 2012 through August show coal exports are growing even faster and should more than double 2009 export levels, buoyed by growth in U.S. steam coal.

Increases in steam coal exports come after years of falling under met coal exports. While met coal has typically held a market share of close to 55 percent over a prolonged period, between 2009 and 2011 met coal averaged two-thirds of U.S. coal exports. However, current data through August 2012 show that steam coal exports are rebounding, growing about 50 percent in 2011 and on track to grow another 50 percent in 2012. In a near mirror image of 2010, steam exports are now driving U.S. coal export growth, accounting for 95 percent of the annualized 2012 export increase.

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