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Rural Blog: Coal production in first quarter of 2016 hits lowest level since 1981 strike year


Coal production in the first three months of 2016 was the lowest quarterly level since 1981, when the industry had a major strike, but the decline appears to be accelerating.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said that coal production declined 17 percent from the fourth quarter of 2015, the largest quarter-to-quarter drop since 1984. The biggest proximate cause was a warmer-than-expected winter, causing electric power plants to cut back on coal burning, especially in the Powder River Basin, which had the nation’s biggest declines in production.

coal production

The gradual decline since 2008 is attributed to challenging market conditions (mainly cheaper natural gas) and environmental regulations. (EIA graphic)

A decline in coal production also has led to a 20 percent decline in coal railcar loads, Clifford Krauss reports for The New York Times.

“Once gradual, the decline in coal mining appears to be picking up momentum. As recently as early 2008, coal was the source of roughly half the electricity generated in the U.S.; this year, that figure has fallen to roughly 30 percent. Still, most energy experts say that coal will continue to be an important source of power for years to come, and the Energy Department projects a small increase in coal consumption next year as natural-gas prices are projected to rise.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.


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