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Published on January 13th, 2016 | by Joshua S Hill


US Coal Production Falls To Lowest Levels Since 1986

January 13th, 2016 by  

The US has seen its coal production levels fall to their lowest levels since 1986, dropping 10% in 2015 as part of a longer downward-trend.

Figures published by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) earlier this month show that coal production has continued to decline since 2008, and in 2015 only reached (an expected) 900 million short tons (MMst), 10% lower than just the year before, and the lowest level since 1986, nearly 30 years prior.

Specifically, production from the Appalachian Basin fell the most in 2015, but lower natural gas prices and lower international demand for American coal is behind the country’s declining coal production figures.


Across America’s five major coal producing basins, the largest decline can be seen to be in the Central Appalachian Basin, due primarily to “difficult mining geology and high operating costs.” Specifically, production in the Central Appalachian Basin was 40% below its annual average (determined over 2010-2014).


The Northern Appalachian Basin, Rocky Mountain region, and Powder River Basin all saw their own production figures fall by between 10% and 20%.

Offsetting the trend somewhat, the Illinois Basin saw 8% higher production levels in 2015 over its annual average.

The majority of America’s coal production is filtered through to electricity generation (though coal exports also declined in 2015, especially to major coal export destinations such as Europe and China). However, with the decline in gas prices and the increase in renewable energy generation capacity, the demand for coal-generated electricity is slipping. In 2014, coal generated 39% of the country’s electricity, with natural gas generating 27% and renewables only generating 7%. With a bumper 2015, America’s renewable energy industry installed a lot of capacity — capacity that will only continue to grow in 2016 — which will have an almost one-for-one impact on coal’s generating and production figures when the EIA releases its 2015 statistics in the coming months.

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About the Author

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (, and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at for more.

  • Epicurus

    As the coal companies go bankrupt, they will stick American taxpayers with the remediation costs which will be gigantic (open pit mines, coal ash, polluted rivers and streams, etc.). American capitalism: privatize the profits, socialize the costs.


    • Frank

      I’ve heard recently from someone in the business, that the EPA? implemented new rules for the ash disposal, so there is a lot of activity building things similar to a landfill for the ash,but there is a lot of truth to what you said, especially everything going up the smokestack.

      • Epicurus

        Tons of coal ash is being “stored” in unlined pits (outrageous), some of it next to rivers. Disaster waiting to happen.

  • ROBwithaB

    Please do not write things like: “With a bumper 2015, America’s renewable energy industry installed a lot
    of capacity — capacity that will only continue to grow in 2016…”

    “…a LOT of capacity.”? That’s the best you can do?
    And “Bumper”?
    What are we? A primary school cheerleading squad?

    Show us the numbers, and show us your sources for those numbers. Otherwise just save that paragraph for another day, when you have actual facts to share with us.

    • ROBwithaB

      To be fair, the rest of the article was pretty well written.
      Credit where it’s due.

    • jeffhre

      Different article.

  • ROBwithaB

    Good news, but that’s still a LOT of coal coming out of the ground.

  • Richard Foster

    Look at Peabody Energy Share price. Then look at what it was 3months ago, a year ago, 5 years ago.

    Will we see a similar collapse in oil and gas in 5-10years time…

    • Adrian

      I checked the stocks of most of the public companies in the top 20 US coal producers list. Peabody, Arch (in bankruptcy), Cloud Peak, Alpha (in bankruptcy), Rio Tinto, Murray, Westmoreland, Consol, Patriot…

      Most of these are off 80% or more from their share price peaks, Rio is the “winner” being off only 50%.

      It’s a bad time to be in the coal mining business. I suspect that a lot of mines will become superfund sites as their companies will have no funds to remediate idle mines. Yet another taxpayer subsidy….

      • Richard Foster

        Rio Tinto isn’t just a Coal company, which explains why they are relatively better off. Glencore Xstrata are similar.

    • Jens Stubbe

      Why this long timeline ?

      Fracking gas and shale oil companies their owners and the banks that have supported their continued operation are in a state of panic.

      Lots of companies are now zombies that are unable to develop new assets and unable to profit from the wells they operate meaning they will wither and die without being able to pay for their depts.

      From behind the development of Synfuels based on still cheaper renewable electricity will define a market price that is unsustainable for for fossils that is growing ever more dependent upon subsidies.

      • Richard Foster

        I don’t doubt that many fracking based oil and gas suppliers will suffer and collapse by 2020 (which of course is the Saudi Arabia driven OPEC aim), but it’s the BPs, Exxons, Shells and soon to be listed Saudi Aramcos of this world that we need to see declining.

        But, and this is an important but, it needs to go at the right time – coal is going and we should celebrate, but largely because it can immediately be replaced by Renewable energy alternatives that are here, ready and cheaper.

        To replace gas peakers, we do need some storage options to fall in price.

        To replace oil, we need EVs to fall in price and other liquid fuels (for where EVs aren’t going to be as economical) and possibly, if it can be done from RE – a H2 option.

        There’s also the big elephant in the room problem to solve – that of aviation. Although it’s becoming more efficient in fuel use, the sector is still growing – it’s responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions and at the moment we have no way of solving this issue. Whatever the situation, people aren’t going to accept an end to aviation travel, unless there is a viable alternative. Thus, we need High-speed rail, hyperloop, electric planes or other alternatives.

        • Jens Stubbe

          Once excess electricity can be supplied to Synfuels plants at a attractive price level the production will kick of. The predominant cost in a Synfuel plant is electricity. The round trip efficiency of a good battery is 75% whereas the conversion efficiency of a Synfuel plant is just 60%. Even so Synfuel could be the cheapest and most interesting solution to the challenge to stabilize 100% renewable grids and getting transportation and other applications of liquid fossil fuels.

          Synfuel plants can co-produce valuable minerals, metals and fresh water.

          Synfuel is also interesting because it allows for over provision of renewables, which will aid towards grid stability and lower electricity cost by acceleration of renewable learning curves.

          I do not think we need all the big oil companies to go belly up. If they just stop exploring new wells and concentrate on using their logistics for biofuels and Synfuels I think they can be part of the solution.

  • BigWu

    These coal prices don’t include any of the extermal costs. Society is paying for the health and environmental impacts of these externalities (e.g., early deaths from higher cancer rates and particulate pollution induced heart attacks, asthma, and of course CO2-induced warming impacts such as drought, flood and reduced farm output).

    At $30 per ton of CO2, an extra $85.60 per short ton is being borne by society (each short ton produces 2.86 short tons of CO2). All in, per a Harvard study, coal externalities are $500 billion in just the USA.

    The true price of coal is therefore a minimum of $95 for Powder River and $135.60 for appalachian before transport costs.

    If accurately priced, coal would be utterly uneconomic except for perhaps coking steel.

    • Frank

      I’d trade adding those externalities permanently for ITC and PTC.

  • Al

    What about the cost of water used by coal based power plants to generate steam?
    With so many places suffering from drought that should be expensive

    • neroden

      Most of the remaining coal plants in the US are not in areas with drought — Illinois is awash in water, for example.

  • neroden

    Note that the transportation cost of coal from mine to power plant by rail is very high. In 2013, according to EIA, the railroad transportation price averaged:
    $21.39 per ton for northern Appalachia
    $23.90 per ton for central Appalachia
    $15.20 per ton for Illinois
    $21.85 per ton for Powder River
    $15.46 per ton for Uinta Region (Rocky Mountains)
    These are an average of actual transportation costs, meaning that they average “cheap” deliveries to nearby destinations with “expensive” deliveries to faraway destinations.

    Waterway and truck costs are much lower, but depending on trucks is not really viable for a power plant unless it’s *very* close to the mine. And waterways are only viable if they run the right direction.

    The key point is that you need to add the price of the coal to the price of the transportation to work out what price the *power plant* is seeing. This is why existing coal power plants in the Northeast are not competitive with solar or wind power any more: add up the Northern Appalachia coal price and transportation price. (You might think that buying cheaper coal from further away would make it cheaper, but of course then you have elevated transportation costs.)

    Meanwhile, of course, the coal mines don’t get any of the transportation costs, so the price they see is just the coal price. Which may not be enough to pay for the mining.

  • JamesWimberley

    It would be nice to hear Republican politicians proposing or supporting initiatives for the miners and mining communities in Appalachia and elsewhere hit by the decline of coal. It would be nice to see migrating pigs flying over the Capitol.

    • Brent Jatko


    • Knetter

      naw that would be welfare, can’t be helping the population, now that mining corporation;Sure!

    • ROBwithaB

      Yeah. Might be time for accelerated vocational education programs for out of work (or soon to be out of work) miners. A lot of wind and solar technicians are going to be required, for a start. And electricians too.

      Might also be nice to see some commitment towards the health costs of all the COPD / black lung stuff.

  • Kevin McKinney

    Good news.

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