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Short-Term Energy Outlook

Release Date: January 13, 2015  |  Next Release Date: February 10, 2015  |  Full Report    |   Text Only   |   All Tables   |   All Figures

Coal

Despite railroad transportation problems and increased rail traffic for other commodities encountered in 2014, year-to-date coal railcar loadings through December 27 were 1% higher than the same period in 2013. Weekly carloads peaked at 120,914 during the week ending December 20, 2014.

Total electric power sector coal stocks increased by just over 12 million short tons (MMst) in October 2014 compared with the previous month, which was the largest stock build since a 12.5-MMst build in October 2011. The increase in coal inventories followed the typical seasonal pattern where coal plants build stocks during the autumn months in preparation for increased coal consumption during the winter. Despite the increase, end-of-October 2014 stocks of 136.3 MMst were 17 MMst (11%) lower than the previous year and 19% lower than the previous four-year average for the month. The large year-over-year decrease in stocks reflects high levels of coal-fired electricity generation during the winter of 2013-14 across a large portion of the country and subsequent decrease in coal deliveries because of rail transportation issues.

Coal Supply

EIA estimates that coal production for 2014 was 994 MMst, 1% (10 MMst) higher than in 2013. EIA expects that annual production will decline in both 2015 and 2016, to 984 MMst and 977 MMst, respectively.

Regional shifts in production are more significant. Appalachian coal production, which averaged 272 MMst in 2014, is projected to decline by 3.6% in 2015 and by nearly 2.9% in 2016 as a result of higher mining costs, weak demand from export markets, and a shift to higher-sulfur, lower-cost Interior region coal. Interior region coal production, which averaged 187 MMst in 2014, is projected to grow by 1.0% in 2015 and 1.3% in 2016. Many power generators have recently installed sulfur dioxide scrubbers in response to environmental regulations, allowing them to switch from Appalachian and Western region coal to Interior region coal.

Western region coal production, which averaged 535 MMst in 2014, is projected to remain largely unchanged in both 2015 and 2016.

Coal Consumption

Electric power sector coal consumption was largely unchanged in 2014. Power sector coal consumption is projected to increase by 0.3% in 2015, despite a 0.8% increase in electricity demand, as comparative natural gas prices decline and retirements of coal power plants rise in response to the implementation of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. The full effect of the coal plant retirements is felt in 2016, as projected electric power sector coal consumption declines by 1.4%.

Coal Trade

Coal exports in 2014 were estimated at 98 MMst in 2014, a 17.1% decline from 118 MMst in 2013. The decline was primarily a result of slowing world coal demand growth, lower international coal prices, and increasing coal output in other coal-exporting countries. EIA expects that there will be no improvement in global market conditions in 2015, and coal exports will fall to 83 MMst, which would be the lowest since 2010. In 2016, EIA projects a slight improvement in international markets (for steam coal), and exports are expected to increase by 1 MMst (1.6%).

Coal Prices

The annual average coal price to the electric power industry fell from a record-high $2.39/MMBtu in 2011 to an estimated $2.35/MMBtu in 2014. EIA expects the average delivered coal price to fall to $2.33/MMBtu in 2015 and to increase back to $2.35/MMBtu in 2016.

U.S. Coal Summary
  2013 2014 2015 2016
Prices (dollars per million Btu)
Electric Power Sector 2.35 2.35 2.33 2.35
Supply (million short tons)
U.S. Coal Production 983.9 994.2 983.8 976.9
Imports 8.9 11.3 10.5 10.8
Exports 117.7 97.6 82.6 83.9
Consumption (million short tons)
Electric Power Sector 858.4 857.4 860.4 848.7
Other Sectors 66.8 65.6 65.0 66.7
Total Consumption 925.1 922.8 925.4 915.4
End of Period Inventories (million short tons)
Electric Power Sector 148.0 135.4 130.5 131.4
Total Inventories 197.5 185.9 183.1 182.6

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