Don’t call it a comeback

By Donna Schmidt

News of the obvious: mining is a cyclical business. Some more than others, but one commodity nearly always atop the volatility list is coal. Much of this year has been good to coal; in fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, that is to continue, at least for now.


In its Short-Term Energy Outlook, the agency said it expects coal consumption across the electric power sector alone to rise 18% whole-year, or jump about 80 million short tons. This is primarily, it admits, the result of rising prices for natural gas (for anyone who has not yet had to see market prices for your home or business: brace yourself and be thankful you are not operating a gas-powered plant).

The EIA flanks that goal/gas insight with a caveat: “Electricity generation from coal-fired power plants has not increased as much in response to rising natural gas prices as it has in the past or by as much as our models had forecast earlier this year. The lower price responsiveness of coal for electricity generation, which is likely the result of constraints on coal supply and low coal stocks, is contributing to upward pressure on natural gas prices.”

There it is: the proverbial fly in the ointment. Suddenly, that warm feeling we got from coal’s improving view is shadowed by a chill. Which we, according to the EIA, will most likely recover from using sources other than the output of a coal-fired plant.

The news isn’t all cold for coal. In fact, the EIA said in the same report that exports are also on the rise, to the tune of 29% for all of 2021 – going up 20 million short tons. And that momentum isn’t going anywhere for a while – though it will have its traditional ebb and flow against other market influences.

“We expect exports to remain relatively unchanged in 2022, when a 3-million-short-ton increase in metallurgical coal exports is partly offset by a 2 MMst decline in steam coal exports. U.S. coal production growth has not kept pace with rising domestic demand for steam coal in the electric power sector and export growth, leading to a draw down in coal inventories held by the electric power sector,” the EIA said.

With all of the conversation about coal’s improving view, it’s important to remember that this too will probably pass. A comeback it is not – it is likely a mere short-term rise in the commodity’s tide that, as we expected from the start, will come to an end.

For more proof, have a look at the EIA’s recently released coal report for 2020. U.S. coal production, it can now confirm, decreased 24.2% year-over-year last year. Productive capacity dropped 7.6%, or 933 million short tons, from 2019. 

Consumption also fell, it points out, down 18.7% from 2019 to 476.7 million short tons. Remember, this was only last year.

What we can do, though, is make the most of this relatively positive time for the industry, and keep coal’s upswing going as long as possible. Keep moving, keep mining safely and keep those trucks, trains and ships of coal moving.

In the end, when it comes to coal, always keep your optimism in check, but be at the ready, too, to celebrate once more.

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