Dramatic Trends in U.S. Coal Consumption and Exports

It's no wonder the black gold looms so large in the presidential race

2 min read
Dramatic Trends in U.S. Coal Consumption and Exports

With gasoline prices sky-high and climate policy low on the public agenda, you may be wondering why coal has such a singular place in the two presidential candidates' contrasting energy platforms. Let's go, as they say in sportscasting, to the videotape.

A week ago, the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its quarterly coal report, highlighting dramatic trends in U.S. coal production, consumption, and exports. Coal production was 9.4 percent lower than the previous quarter and coal consumption was 16.3 percent below what it was during the same quarter a year ago.

Second quarter U.S. coal exports, on the other hand, were 39.1 percent higher than in the second quarter of 2011. Without that increase, U.S. production in the second quarter would have been 19.9 percent lower than in a year earlier, rather than 9.4 percent lower. All three elements of the coal picture--consumption, production, and exports—are highly sensitive to Federal policy.

Production is down, to be sure, partly because of market forces—that is to say, because natural gas is so plentiful and cheap. But its contraction also is a result in significant measure of the Obama administration's strict air pollution policies (which have made it much more expensive to operate and maintain older coal plants), and because of expectations that future carbon-reduction policies will make coal even more unattractive.

Exports may be equally dependent on Federal policy. Will the next president go all-out to see that infrastructure is put in place to facilitate future coal exports? What if, to take an improbable but not impossible scenario, a president decided to actively discourage coal exports, on the ground that is bad for the global climate to burn coal anywhere?

All that market uncertainty is music to the ears of politicians who have the means to reduce it. That's why coal money has been pouring into the coffers of the Romney campaign, and why highways in the coal-rich regions of western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio are lined with billboards trumpeting the benefits of "clean coal." Even on commercial-free PBS television or NPR radio, you won't likely make it through an hour without hearing a message boosting coal.

Out west residents in northwest Washington are bitterly divided over a proposed coal export terminal to be built at Cherry Point (photo). Native American leaders have joined with environmentalists and green-minded politicians in opposition to the facility, which they believe would be inimical to fishing rights and sacred sites. In Wyoming, the likely source of any coal exported from a future terminal at Cherry Point, production was down 16.8 percent in the second quarter of this year.


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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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