Energy Facts: U.S. Coal Consumption Is Down But Are Exports Eroding Climate Benefits?
- Mar 30, 2013 5:00 am GMT
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Time again for Friday Energy Facts…
U.S. coal consumption has fallen by 237 million short tons from 2005 to 2012, a drop of more than 21 percent. The decline in coal consumption was driven almost entirely by trends in the electric power sector, where low-cost natural gas, and to a lesser extent, growing renewable electricity production, displaced coal-fired power plants.
The sharp drop in coal consumption has also been a major contributor to declining U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which stood 13 percent below 2005 levels in 2012.
Yet while coal use declined at home, coal exports increased and global prices for coal fell, prompting some to worry: are the climate gains associated with declining U.S. coal consumption simply being offset by booming exports?
To find out, I consulted the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
As the graphics below indicate, U.S. exports of coal increased by 82 million short tons from 2005 to 2012, enough to offset roughly 38 percent of the decline in domestic coal use. Increased exports offset a larger share (55 percent) of the declines in U.S. coal consumption from 2005 to 2011.
(Where are all those exports going? EIA has the full scoop here, but the short answer is Europe.)
In short: exports are indeed on the rise, but not enough to fully offset the climate benefits of declining U.S. coal consumption.
However, a full accounting of the net climate benefits of declining coal use would also have to account for emissions of CO2 and methane associated with increased natural gas use, which is responsible for much of the 2005-2012 decline in coal combustion, particularly in the U.S. power sector. That will have to be an analysis for another day…
*A note on methodology: coal export data was only available form the EIA for the first three quarters of 2012 (January through September). Year-on-year change in coal exports for the first three quarters of 2012 relative to the first three quarters of 2011 was an increase of 22.8 percent. To extrapolate for the full year, I assume that total annual exports in 2012 are an equivalent percentage above total annual 2011 exports.