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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Analysis: China’s ban on Australian coal is benefiting U.S. railroads

Analysis: China’s ban on Australian coal is benefiting U.S. railroads

By Chase Gunnoe | November 24, 2021

Year-long halt on purchases from Australia has led to huge surge in exports from U.S.

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Coal hoppers rolling past fall foliage
Coal hoppers rolling past fall foliage
A CSX Transportation unit coal train rolls through Ranger, W.Va., in October 2021 on its way to Newport News, Va., for export. The U.S. is supplying China with metallurgical coal, as pictured here, that originates from central Appalachia. (Chase Gunnoe)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Railroads are benefitting from China’s continued appetite for U.S. coal as America exports coal to China in volumes unseen in much of the past decade. American coal producers are supplying China for electricity generation and steelmaking due to a now year-long unofficial ban China imposed on Australia.

In late 2020, China quit buying coal from Australia after top officials in the country criticized China on its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since then, China has relied on other coal producers, like the U.S., to supply its needs. China is heavily dependent on coal and is the world’s largest consumer of the nonrenewable resource. And even though China’s economy has soared since pandemic restrictions lifted, the country is still sourcing its coal from suppliers other than Australia.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that through the first half of 2021, the U.S. has exported 5.4 million tons of coal to China, compared to slightly more than 531,000 tons for the same period a year ago — a profound 920% increase year-over-year. For the first half of 2019, before the pandemic, the U.S. exported a little more than 771,000 tons to China.

For the first half of 2021, the U.S. has exported more than 554,000 tons of thermal coal to China for electricity generation, compared to a measly 488 tons for the same period a year ago. It is the most thermal utility coal the U.S. has shipped to China since 2013. As for metallurgical coal, used to produce steel, the U.S. has shipped 4.8 million tons to China in the first six months of 2021, compared to less than 532,000 tons a year prior. It is the also the most met coal China has received from America since 2013.

According to the Association of American Railroads’ most recent weekly railcar traffic data, published Nov. 6, U.S. railroads have moved 2.8 million carloads of coal this year, a 11.6% increase year-over-year, or a positive difference of more than 68,000 carloads. While 2020 coal production was hindered by the pandemic’s impact on the economy, China is accelerating coal’s demand, and carloads as the U.S. backfills tons previously supplied by Australia.

Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore, Md., lead the nation in coal exports at 14.7 million tons and 10.9 million tons, respectively, through the first six months of 2021, the most recent data published by the U.S. EIA.

But terminals in the Gulf of Mexico have been the biggest beneficiaries of 2021’s coal export tailwinds in terms of percentage gains. New Orleans has handled 5.9 million tons through June 2021, compared to 2 million tons a year prior, a 197% increase year-over-year. Houston-Galveston, Texas, handled more than 187,000 tons in the first six months of 2021, compared to less than 7,000 tons a year prior. Gulf Coast terminals will often handle export-bound thermal coal originating from the PRB due to limited port capacity and coal-related infrastructure on the West Coast.

In early October, Reuters reported that China had begun the process of releasing some Australian coal from bonded storage along its coast due to an ever-intensifying power crisis. At the time, it was estimated China had about 1 million tons of Australian coal in warehouse storage, but despite the effort to process some of the reserved coal, it was not a clear indication that China would start using Australian coal on a regular basis again.

21 thoughts on “Analysis: China’s ban on Australian coal is benefiting U.S. railroads

  1. Am I the only one who contrasts this “good for railroads” news against the official US “no coal, whopee for green energy” policy? Not that I’m surprised. In other news, Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  2. Happy holiday George. No, you’re not the only one to notice.

    Having a bit of technical knowledge myself, my opinion as that green energy policies will be the biggest environmental disaster this world will ever see,

    If anyone is traveling by rail for the holidays, enjoy.

    1. A little knowledge is not necessarily a good thing. Although, there are some real problems in the massive rush to switch.

      1. the fact is China always dupes world politicians to make the climate nuts feel warm and fuzzy and goes ahead and does what it pleases for its economic advantage

  3. Resisting urge . . .

    OK, I hope people are enjoying watching coal trains around Bluefield, Welch, Iaeger, etc. Those were good trips.

    Happy Thanksgiving

  4. The entire “green energy movement” smacks of a bit of hypocrisy. Where will we get the massive quantities of kilowatts for all of the electric vehicles to be built in the next 20 years, as we continually shrink our base-load capacity, and are already handicapped by an overloaded grid in many areas?

    1. What I wonder about Al is how are the activists that detest mining and the so called environmental damage caused by mining? Nickel and copper smelting are far from green and use a lot of energy. Then there are the large open pit mines that will be created for some of these resources, don’t appear to be friendly to the earth. I think of INCO in Sudbury, the oil sands in Fort McMurray, Bingham Copper Mine etc, there is always screams of environmental damage, batteries do not just magically show up.
      With today’s government environmental laws, will the resources even be accessible in North America?

      Anyway,
      Happy Thanksgiving everyone from the Great White North.

      1. A few months ago the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that the Green Revolution was going to require massive investments in new mines which are not likely to happen between the NIMBY’s, econazis, environmentalists (years ago the Sierra Club successfully blocked a plant in Sacramento to recycle paper) and regulators. For some metals (like copper) enough prospective resources are not known while existing mines are rapidly running out of economic reserves. Basically the world would be trading oil and gas wells for massive mining operations. Given the intellectual ability of our elites shortly thereafter the IEA advocated accelerating the shift to renewables, just months after they discovered it couldn’t happen.

  5. Am I the only one to note an inconsistency, New Orleans benefited the most by shipping 5.9 million tons while earlier on the article states the grand total for US export during the same period was 5. million?

  6. First of all, it metallurgical coal is a separate issue. Not sure how to make steel without it. Also, getting rid of coal for electricity generation is important, but China is taking its time. The US is moving faster, but it will take some years to get to no carbon. There is a difference between short term and long term.

    It may be a boon to the railroads and mines in Appalachia are not the future of the economy in the area in the long term. When I was in West Virginia a few years ago I saw a lot of wind mills. There’s plenty of wind there, especially on the mountains.

  7. Do as I say, and not as I do? With the conversion from coal to natural gas over the past decade, the US has greatly reduced its carbon footprint. I say we have done our fair share. Until China, India and the rest of the 3rd World reduce their carbon footprint, why should we do any more than we already have done? You cannot make batteries and wind turbines without using fossil fuels to extract, mill and/or manufacture their components! Meanwhile China is cornering the world’s market for most of the raw materials needed to make Sodium – Lithium batteries.

    Sure, in the short run the railroads are shipping more coal, but by doing so, are we selling the rope to China, which they will eventually hang us?

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  8. Germany had a severe shortage of electricity generation last winter, and people froze due to depending on green energy ,like Texas did.The media did not report on it heavily, as it did not fit their agenda,Here in New England their are more solar farms and solar panels on houses than I see in sunny Arizona when I visit relatives.The reason being there are state subsidies and incentives for solar panels in New England and we have one of the highest cost per kilowatt hour in the country. How did the American Indian migrate from Asia over the Bearing Sea land bridge 15 to 20 thousand years ago? During the last ice age. HAPPY THANKSGIVING

  9. All perfectly said. As for the materials to build batteries for electric cars as with Biden wanting OPEC and Russia to produce more oil for us he’ll just have China build them. As for reducing coal fired power plants and relying on natural gas only a matter of time we won’t have gas to heat our homes and we can all put coal burning furnaces in. Wow a new twist on trickle down economics.

  10. The politics sure are odd. Our leadership refuses to blame China, they rue coal miners and oil workers, preach green everything, yet the tap is wide open to the export of coal. It’s a weird world we live in.

    1. Coal shipping is not a rail topic? red versus blue? I would say well informed comments vs uniformed dreamers, colour blind to divisive politicians seeking political power

  11. Where China buys coal does not matter. It will import and produce the coal it needs and burn the same amount no matter where it comes from.

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