Despite record amounts being spent to propagandize the coal industry and the ridiculous concept of “clean coal”, United States coal consumption has gone down. Sort of.
A recent report from the Energy Information Administration indicates the U.S.’s relative consumption has gone done, while the world consumption continues to rise at a nauseating rate. This matters in a couple ways. U.S. has typically driven fossil fuel consumption globally – so this is a step in the right direction. However the aggregate amount of greenhouse gasses distributed into the atmosphere is what will make or break the environmental future for our children. Countries like China continue to grow at exponential rates, those not seen since America’s industrial revolution.
Why am I not doing backflips about the U.S. dropping coal consumption? Because the U.S. could stop coal'd-turkey (get it?) and if other countries continue at the same clip, we will still all have black marks under our noses and our children will cough like the Swammy Swans in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.
According to the International Energy Agency, China has become the largest coal importer in the world. In 2009, China became a net coal importer for the first time. In 2011, it became the largest coal importer, surpassing Japan, which had held the position for decades.
So why is China riding the black dragon (is that a saying?... can it be?) so intensely now while the U.S. is just finishing up its binge? Because coal is relatively inexpensive compared to virtually all other forms of energy excepting natural gas. And because it is relatively safe to transport and easy to extract from the earth when compared to some of the more desperate measures we are deploying to access oil and natural gas.
Plus, nobody in the U.S. is complaining about the exports we currently enjoy. The state of Wyoming experienced a 21 percent increase in coal production between Q2 2012 and the same quarter in 2011. That is unprecedented and welcomed growth in a state known for little else besides farming and livestock. (editor's note: and Yellowstone and the Grand Teton Mtns.)
While international demand remains high, domestic demand has dropped because of record-low prices for natural gas and continued investment in a robust distribution infrastructure.
The non-expert analysis: U.S. demand will continue to drop while international demand will rise until the cheap coal bubble has popped and rapidly industrializing nations are forced to look elsewhere (read: nuclear) for cheap, fast energy. From a climate change perspective, this would not be a bad outcome.
Image credit: appalachian.voices, courtesy flickr