U.S. coal production increased slightly during 2011 for the second year in a row, rising about 0.4% from the 2010 level, after falling sharply during 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
EIA on Feb. 13 released a summary of the results of its weekly coal production reports for 2011. The agency noted that exports drove gains in production in 2011, as U.S. coal shipments to other countries climbed to their highest level in two decades, while domestic coal consumption for electricity generation fell.
Western coal production, which includes the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, declined 1.2% last year to 584 million tons. Western coal has a lower sulfur content than most other coals, with much of it used as fuel to run power plants because it produces fewer emissions than coal mined in other parts of the country. However, the 2011 decline in western coal output mirrored the drop in electricity generation from coal, as utilities switched to more affordable natural gas to fuel their power plants, EIA said. Western production was also affected by severe flooding in the spring and summer, particularly Montana, which had a decrease in production of 7% from 2010. The decrease in Montana production was enough to move it out of the top five producing states.
Appalachian coal output increased 0.6% to 339 million tons in 2011. The region, which runs from Pennsylvania south to Alabama, produces bituminous coal, which is used for both electricity generation and as metallurgical coal to produce coke that is used in the steel-making process. The increase in this region’s production reflects the large jump in exports, of which a large portion is met coal, EIA said.
Production from the Interior region, which includes the high-sulfur Illinois Basin, rose 6.4% to 166 million tons. This region is seeing the benefit of new SO2 scrubbers installed by various power generators, which allow plants wider latitude to burn higher sulfur coals. Coal production in Texas was up nearly 4 million tons in 2011 and accounted for about 40% of the Interior region’s output increase. Several power plants that run on coal went online in Texas in 2010 and 2011, EIA noted.
Of the total coal consumed in 2011, about 93% was used in the electric power sector. However, electric sector coal consumption fell last year by an estimated 40 million tons, or 4%, compared to 2010, as cheap natural gas encouraged operators to increase the use of gas-fired generation to service load. At the same time, projected U.S. electricity generation was down about 0.3% last year.
The U.S. exported a total of 107 million tons of coal in 2011, up 31% from the year before and the most since 1991. U.S. exports of steam coal, used mainly to fuel power plants, were an estimated 37 million tons in 2011, the highest since 2008. Estimated exports of met coal reached record levels in 2011, about 70 million tons.