US coal exports skyrocket, nearly tripling over the last decade

A train carrying coal winds through Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Creative Commons: Aaron Hockley, 2006

A train carrying coal winds through Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Creative Commons: Aaron Hockley, 2006

Coal exports in the United States have nearly tripled since 2005, according to new data from the US Energy and Information Administration.

Domestic coal consumption is continuing to shrink in the US, where a combination of low natural gas prices, tightening environmental regulations, and the falling price of renewable energy generation are pushing utilities away from conventional coal plants.

As a result, coal producers in the US are looking abroad to find willing buyers.

Coal represents a mere fraction of US energy exports, currently around 5 percent. Nonetheless, skyrocketing exports constitute a noteworthy trend.

In 2005, the US exported 50 million short tons of coal, while in 2012 it exported 126 million short tons. Half of US coal exports go to Europe, 26 percent are sent to Asia, and around 10 percent go to North and South America each.

In Washington, conservative leaders have once again renewed their push to loosen fossil fuel export regulations. John Barrasso, a Senator representing a major coal-producing state, called Thursday for President Obama to allow more natural gas, coal, and oil to be shipped abroad.

Barrasso and his allies have seemingly spent little time considering the environmental consequences of extracting and exporting even more dirty fossil fuels, instead preferring to emphasize the job-creation benefits of expanding the energy sector.

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