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US imports of thermal coal remain in the doldrums

World Coal,

At their peak in 2007, thermal coal imports to the US totaled more than 30 million t. Now, with the number of plants using imported coal also low (13 in 2013 compared to 48 in 2006), figures and statistics show that thermal coal imports remain firmly in the doldrums.

The latest report released by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that thermal coal imports at electric power plants in the US totalled less than 7 million t over 2013. Preliminary date for the first five months of 2014 indicate an increase in imports and the number plants using the coal; however, both figures remain well-below 2007 levels.

The EIA noted that coal imports, which arrive mainly from Colombia but also from countries including Venezuela, Indonesia and Canada, remain just a small part of overall US coal consumption – just 3% in 2007 and less than 1% in 2013.

According to the EIA report: “Although the US has abundant supplies of domestic coal, some power plants along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast receive imported coal. Imported coal accounted for between 25% and 50% of total annual coal receipts for the top coal-importing plants from 2002 to 2013. Plants in these areas are subject to relatively higher cost of eastern rail transport and in some cases are limited to delivery by waterway. The domestic coal these plants use is also relatively expensive, because nearby Appalachian coals are priced above the national average. These factors increased the cost of domestic coal high enough to make imported coal economically attractive.”

Low sulfur content

The EIA also noted that some imported coal offers plants the opportunity to burn material that has lower sulfur content to domestic supplies. This makes it easier for utilities to address the ever-pressing conundrum of how to work within increasingly stringent environmental regulations imposed by the Obama administration.

Improvements to technology could partially remove the low-sulfur advantage of overseas coal, according to the EIA. The administration points to recent installations of flue gas desulfurisation equipment at a number of coal-fired power plants as examples of this technology in action. The equipment has allowed generators added flexibility to purchase higher-sulfur coal from domestic suppliers.

Terminal decline

The decline in thermal coal exports marks part of a wider – and perhaps increasingly worrying – trend for the US coal industry at large. The EIA notes that coal use at power plants has been declining in general, “as low electricity demand growth and increased competition with natural gas has lessened the demand for coal.”

Before 2011, total net summer generating capacity for coal-importing plants was 18,977 MW. However, 9% of this capacity was retired between 2011 and 2013, and another 21% of this capacity is planned to retire by 2020. According to the EIA report, recent and planned retirements will result in the complete retirement of coal-fired generating capacity at 11 plants and the partial retirement of coal-fired capacity at one additional plant (the Barry plant in Alabama).

The remaining coal-fired electric generators have been used less often in recent years: the average utilisation rate of the entire coal fleet declined from 74% in 2006 to 59% in 2013. At plants that consumed imported coal, this drop was larger, falling from a peak of 74% in 2007 to 37% in 2013.

The recent decline in coal imports by electric generators in particular is attributable to retirements of coal-fired power plants, decreased use of coal-fired power plants, and higher international coal prices compared with domestic prices, the EIA report notes. 

Written by Sam Dodson

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