District coal producers are fighting to retain market share in a national power generation industry that derives an increasing share of its energy input from alternative sources. One survival strategy that has gained traction recently is exporting to Asian countries with a large and growing appetite for coal.
Over the past half-decade, coal’s position as the dominant feedstock for power plants has been eroded by cheap natural gas, increasingly competitive renewables and stringent federal air quality regulations that have rendered many coal-burning plants too costly to operate. In 2008, 48 percent of U.S. power generation was coal-fired, according to the Energy Information Administration; in 2013, coal’s share was 37 percent.
Many coal producers have turned to foreign markets to offset an overall drop in domestic coal consumption. In Montana, the go-to export destinations are South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. “There’s huge demand for coal in southeastern Asian countries for power generation,” said Bud Clinch, executive director of the Montana Coal Council, an industry trade association.
Subbituminous coal from southeastern Montana is cheaper than coal from many other parts of the country, and its high energy content makes it economical to ship overseas via rail and cargo ship. (No coal is exported from North Dakota; the total output of the state’s lignite mines goes to local power plants.)
Since 2009, Montana coal exports have increased sharply, mostly due to shipments from the Spring Creek mine outside Decker, near the Wyoming border (see chart). Over 40 percent of Montana coal comes from this mine, owned by Cloud Peak Energy of Wyoming. In 2013, Spring Creek exported 4.7 million tons to East Asian customers—triple the amount from 2009—mainly through a coal terminal in the Canadian port of Vancouver.
Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain mine near Roundup, Mont., also exports coal, and developers of the proposed Otter Creek coal mine southeast of Ashland, Mont., plan to ship coal to Asia via a new rail link to BNSF’s Colstrip terminal.
But limited port capacity on the Pacific Coast constrains coal exports from Montana and other western states. Ramping up shipments depends on the opening of new coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington state—projects that face opposition from environmental groups concerned about global warming and the impact of coal handling on local air and water quality.
For more on other mining activity in the district, look for the upcoming July issue of the fedgazette.