Where the Country’s Coal is Going (It Might Surprise You)

Map by Energy Information Administration

Coal exports are on the rise, largely due to demand in Europe.

Coal is on the decline in the United States. As a domestic drilling boom has opened up vast supplies of natural gas and coal has become more expensive to mine, coal power plants have become less and less viable. New environmental regulations that require coal plants to upgrade their equipment are also a factor. There are very few new coal plants being proposed in the country right now as a result.

But that doesn’t mean that the country’s coal is staying underground. It continues to be mined, and will continue to be burned for power, just not as much domestically. Rather, our coal is being sent abroad. Surprisingly, to Europe. And coal exports are on track to reach record highs, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

“Despite growing demand in Asia, the United States exports slightly more coal to Europe than it sends the rest of the world combined,” the EIA says in a new report on coal exports. 

Much of that coal is being exported from the East Coast, but the Houston-Galveston port is the country’s seventh-largest port for exports, with 1.6 million tons of coal exported in the first eight months of 2012. Most of that goes to Europe. (New Orleans is the second largest port in the country, with 19.2 million tons of coal exports during the same period.)

Not all of that coal will be used for power generation, but in Europe that will be its primary purpose. The region suffers from high natural gas prices, and has to use coal power to get by.

It brings up the question: what’s the point of the U.S. cutting its carbon footprint if increased demand abroad will lead to higher carbon emissions overall?

We put that question to Dr. Al Armendariz earlier this fall. The former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now a representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

“I think this is a great opportunity for the U.S. to be a leader when it comes to renewables,” Armendnariz said. “The technologies we develop here — whether it’s batteries for automobiles or solar power or wind turbine technology, it will very quickly be adopted across the world. So I think the increase in CO2 emissions that we’re seeing in the rest of the world will eventually taper off like they are in this county. And the great opportunity for the U.S. is to then be the supplier of renewable energy that takes over.”

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