U.S. coal exports surge, riding demand abroad

While use dwindles at home, shipments to Europe, Asia last year were highest since 1991

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Millennium Bulk Terminals is seeking permits to build a terminal at the 416-acre former Reynolds Metals aluminum site in Longview for exporting coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to foreign markets. The company withdrew an earlier permit, which was under appeal from opponents, for a Columbia River port to ship 5.7 million tons of coal a year. The new proposal requires approval of Cowlitz County and permits from the Corps of Engineers and clean-air agencies. It is expected that coal trains would run through Clark County.

photo A train loaded with coal travels through northeast Wyoming near Gillette in August 2006.

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BILLINGS, Mont. -- U.S. coal exports reached their highest level in two decades last year as strong demand from Asia and Europe offered an outlet for a fuel that is falling from favor at home.

U.S. Department of Energy data analyzed by The Associated Press reveal that coal exports topped 107 million tons of fuel worth almost $16 billion in 2011. That’s the highest level since 1991, and more than double the export volume from 2006.

Much of the increase went to slake the thirst of power-hungry markets in Asia, where rapid development has sparked what mining company Peabody Energy calls a “global coal super cycle” that heralds renewed interest in the fuel.

The AP’s analysis showed coal exports to South Korea leapt 81 percent last year to more than 10 million tons. India saw a 65 percent jump, to 4.5 million tons. And Japan bought almost 7 million tons of U.S. coal last year -- a 119 percent increase -- as the nation sought alternatives to nuclear power after an earthquake and tsunami prompted the Fukushima nuclear complex meltdown.

King Coal faces a tougher outlook in the U.S., where competition from cheap natural gas and costly new rules for power plants are eroding its historic dominance in electricity generation.

Coal’s share of the domestic power supply has fallen by more than 20 percent in the past several years, forcing companies to search out new customers or risk having to cut production from U.S. mines that produced almost 1.1 billion tons last year.

Government projections released Tuesday said domestic power sector demand for coal could dip another 10 percent in 2012. That would drive total U.S. coal use below a billion tons annually for only the second time since 1995.

Utilities burn almost all the coal consumed in the U.S. to produce electricity.

“There’s no question that our supplies of coal are adequate. The question is, how do we find new markets for coal to keep the share of electricity generation strong?” said Luke Popovich with the National Mining Association. “While its use is relatively declining here, it is absolutely soaring in most other places.”

Exports also were up to Brazil, China and several European nations seeking high-quality coal for steelmaking, according to the Energy Department data.

The Energy Department forecasts exports to drop slightly over the next two years, then slowly climb to about 130 million tons annually by 2030. Countries worldwide consume more than 6 billion tons of coal annually.

Companies including Arch Coal Inc. have offered far more optimistic scenarios under which exports continue to grow rapidly. St. Louis-based Arch has predicted export capacity could reach 245 million tons by 2015.

To make that happen, companies want new or expanded coal ports on the West and Gulf coasts.

Pending proposals in Washington state would add tens of millions of tons of port capacity for coal that would be mined from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming.

Port expansions also are envisioned along the East Coast and in Texas.