U.S. Coal Companies Scale Back Export Goals – by Clifford Krauss (New York Times – September 14, 2013)


HOUSTON — The ailing American coal industry, which has pinned its hopes on exports to counter a declining market at home, is scaling back its ambitions as demand from abroad starts to ebb as well.

Just south of here, New Elk Coal terminated its lease late last month at the Port of Corpus Christi, where it had hoped to export coal to Brazil, Europe and Asia. Two days later, when the federal government tried to auction off a two-square-mile tract of land in Wyoming’s Powder River basin, a region once poised to grow with exports to Asia, not a single coal company made a bid.

They were the latest signs that a global coal glut and price slump, along with persistent environmental opposition, are reducing the likelihood that additional exports could shield the industry from slipping domestic demand caused by cheap natural gas and mounting regulations.

United States coal exports this year are expected to decline by roughly 5 percent from last year’s record exports of 125 million tons, and many experts predict the decline will quicken next year. At the beginning of 2012, the coal industry had plans to expand port capacity by an additional 185 million tons. But those hopes have faded this year.

“Global coal prices right now are not supportive of large-scale U.S. coal exports,” said Anthony Yuen, a Citigroup energy analyst.

European demand is soft, and the economies of the developing world are slowing. But the main reason for the slumping prices is China’s softening demand growth, experts say.

For most of the last decade, China’s soaring thirst for energy accounted for more than 50 percent of world coal demand, driving up international coal prices and stimulating mining activity across Australia, Indonesia and as far away as Colombia and South Africa. With Australia and Indonesia straining to produce for China, South Korea and Japan increasingly looked to the United States for future supplies, stimulating interest in the building of several export terminals in Oregon and Washington State and on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

But over the last few months those hopes appear to be receding with a reshaping of global coal markets. After years of mounting imports of coal to fuel its growing economy, China has taken a number of steps to slow those imports. It has modernized domestic mines, made coal-fired electricity plants more efficient and stepped up development of nuclear and renewable power.

On Thursday, China announced a ban on construction of new coal-fired plants around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to control air pollution. The plan will shift new power plant construction to natural gas, nuclear and solar power. Those initiatives, along with slowing Chinese economic growth, have undercut expectations for rising imports and helped produce an overabundance that has sent world coal prices plummeting by more than 30 percent from last year. In response, international coal companies are scaling back mining and shelving export projects from Australia to the Gulf of Mexico, especially for thermal coal used to produce electricity.

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