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Today in Energy

March 27, 2019

In 2018, U.S. coal exports were the highest in five years

U.S. coal exports
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report, and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau

While U.S. coal consumption has generally declined since its 2008 peak, EIA expects that U.S. coal exports reached 116 million short tons (MMst) in 2018, the highest level in five years, based on foreign trade data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Exports of coal from the United States have increased since 2016 as international prices have made it more economic for U.S. producers to sell coal overseas.

U.S. coal export share of U.S. coal dispositions
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report, and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau

In 2018, the United States exported 15% of its coal, and the remaining 85% was sold to end-use markets, primarily power sector and industrial customers. Coal exports have increased during the past two years, driven by increasing international coal demand, and in 2018 accounted for the largest share of total U.S. coal disposition on record. The United States exported 54 MMst of steam coal and 62 MMst of metallurgical coal in 2018, based on export data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

annual coal price by type
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report, and U.S. Census Bureau

Strong international demand has led to export prices increasing in recent years; coal export prices have increased in each of the past two years to average $59 per ton for steam coal and $138 per ton for metallurgical coal in 2018. Metallurgical coal, which is used in the steel-making process, has greater value than steam coal, which is used to create heat for industrial processes, commercial use, and utility-scale electricity generation. Asian countries account for about 75% of metallurgical coal trade in the world, and increased demand in China and India in 2017 and 2018 has helped to push metallurgical coal prices up throughout Asia.

U.S. steam coal exports to Asia have also increased during the past two years, from 5 MMst in 2016 to 20 MMst in 2018, or nearly 40% of total U.S. steam coal exports. India, Japan, and South Korea were the primary Asian destinations for U.S. steam coal. U.S. steam coal exports have also increased to some new markets such as Egypt, Thailand, and Ukraine in recent years, providing some potential for market growth.

annual coal price by sector or export type
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report, and U.S. Census Bureau

Price data from EIA’s Annual Coal Report show that foreign coal trade appears to drive the market for U.S. metallurgical coal. The volume of metallurgical exports has grown to triple the level of domestic coke producer demand for metallurgical coal. Steam coal export prices also respond to international price movement, but they have a more limited impact on domestic coal prices because steam coal exports account for less than 10% of steam coal demand.

The Annual Coal Report, released in November 2018 with data for 2017, also presents detailed data on coal production, productivity, employment, consumption, sales and disposition, exports, and coal prices, with data by mine type, coal grade, state, U.S. census region, and end-use sector. It also includes annual summary tables on export price, coal production, mining productivity, and average price of coal by grade since 1949.

Principal contributor: David Fritsch