EIA: Coal transportation costs jump 50% in last decade

The average cost of shipping coal by railroad to power plants increased almost 50% from 2001 to 2010, with rail transport accounting for more than 70% of U.S. coal destined to the electric power sector, said a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Though they vary significantly, transportation costs accounted for 40% of the average overall cost of coal delivered at electric power plants in 2010. On average, nominal U.S. rail rates for shipping coal grew from $11.83 to $17.25 per short ton from 2001 to 2010, EIA noted. Rates grew slowly in the beginning of the decade before increasing almost 11% in 2005, then continued to grow at a relatively robust pace until the recession. The impact of the recession on transportation rates was short-lived as rates grew more than 9% in 2010.

“National numbers can be misleading, however, as regional dynamics tend to vary considerably among the six major coal basins,” EIA said. “For example, Southern Appalachian coal costs increased more than 10% annually in 2001-10, while Powder River Basin (PRB) rates grew 1.5% over the same period. For a few PRB destination states, rates fell during this period.”

The wide range in minemouth coal prices and transportation distances across the U.S. create significant variation in the impact of transportation rates on overall coal costs, with different basins affected to significantly differing degrees, EIA said. While rail transportation costs for Appalachian and Illinois Basin coals as a percent of total delivered cost fall in the low 20% range, the relatively low cost of PRB coal, and the long distances it travels, results in transportation costs that averaged almost 60% of the total delivered cost in 2010—more than the cost of the coal itself.

State-level data show further variation in rate changes over 2001-2010. At the high and low ends, Virginia-to-Tennessee rates grew 83% while Wyoming-to-Kansas rates fell 23%—a 106 percentage point swing.

In this latest release of Coal Transportation Rates to the Electric Power Sector, EIA has significantly expanded upon prior versions of this report with the incorporation of new EIA survey data. Previously, EIA relied solely on data from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), specifically the confidential Carload Waybill Sample. much of that information had to be withheld for confidentiality reasons. With this current release, EIA augments STB data with EIA’s Power Plant Operations Report (EIA-923) data. Unlike the Waybill sample, EIA-923 survey data are intended to be a full population data set, EIA said. Utilizing the EIA-923 Survey’s much larger data coverage enables EIA to publish data over numerous routes that were previously withheld, especially for state-to-state rates.

Another feature of this latest release is the incorporation for the first time of coal transport rates by barge and truck. As a relatively new survey field however, barge and truck data currently comprise a limited time series. Further analysis will be conducted as more data are collected. However, three years (2008-2010) are included in this initial release, EIA noted.

This report covers railroad transportation rates from 2001-2010 and barge and truck rates from 2008-2010. STB data covers 2001-2009 and the newly-incorporated EIA data covers the period of 2008-2010. For future releases, using EIA survey data rather than solely relying on the STB Waybill will enable EIA to significantly improve the timeliness of this report, releasing data within several months of collection.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.