Recent Coal Export Trends: Q3 2011

Western shipments declined in third quarter 2011.
This post is 4 in the series: Coal Export Trend Reports

Here’s a look at the latest coal report from the US EIA, taking us up through the third quarter of 2011. In this chart, you see the past 15 years of quarterly data.

I’m showing Customs Districts here, not ports. The Port of Seattle does not move coal. But some coal does get exported out of the Seattle Customs District region by way of the rail crossing at Blaine, Washington. It is, by all accounts, Powder River Basin coal heading to BC’s Westshore Terminal for onward shipment to Asia.

Somewhat surprisingly, the third quarter of 2011 saw a decline in coal export volumes in both the Seattle and Los Angeles Customs Districts, as well as in the West overall. The Seattle District moved 1.25 million tons of coal in the third quarter, down 13 percent from the second quarter. Los Angeles District exports were down 25 percent. Right now, it looks like the Seattle District will ship just a bit more than 5 million tons in 2011. (Final 2011 numbers are due out in March, and I’ll report them here.)

It may look as though the West has been experiencing a coal export boom in 2011, but the volumes here are really nothing compared to what coal companies are planning. For context, here’s the same data plotted against the plans for the Cherry Point project alone:

Needless to say, if even the first phase of Cherry Point gets built, the region will experience coal shipments at a level that bears no comparison to current coal traffic.

There’s one additional surprise in the data. Coal exports out of the Great Falls Customs District continue to flat line at near-zero figures. Despite persistent rumors that Powder River Basin coal shippers will use the Sweetgrass, Montana rail crossing to move their product north to Ridley Terminals at Prince Rupert, BC, there’s increasingly good evidence that’s not actually happening. In fact, in all of 2010 and the first three quarters of 2011 combined, scarcely 14,000 tons of coal was exported via Sweetgrass.

It’s possible that some Ridley-bound coal is moving instead via the Blaine crossing in the Seattle District, though that’s a tortuous and congested route. More likely, Ridley is so far away that it’s too expensive for coal companies to use, which means that at least at current prices it is not a viable alternative to port facilities in Oregon, Washington, or southern BC.

Thanks to Pam MacRae for research assistance.

All of my reporting on quarterly coal export volumes can be found in the series “Coal Export Trend Reports.” All data come from the US EIA’s latest quarterly coal report, covering the entire Western Customs Region. In addition to the districts shown on the chart here, the Western Region includes the Portland, Great Falls, Nogales, San Diego, and San Francisco Districts. These districts have been reporting virtually no coal exports.

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  1. Mike Klass says:

    The expansion of the Ridley coal terminal is not complete. The existing terminal handles primarily Canadian Met Coal. Once teh expansion is done, there will be room for US Steam coal.

    With the new terminals in the Gulf and the expanded Panama Canal, the coal will move via these other outlets, along with the attendant jobs and related commerce.

    However, we can have the smug satisfaction of not encouraging it here in Puget Sound!

    • Bryan says:

      Yep, other parts of the country want jobs… Mean while the two states that have always been export states are handcuffing businesses that want to export. So I guess when the ports of Seattle and Tacoma keep loosing container business to the solca ports and the expanded Panama Canal, so the ports in BC, you environmental people will be happy. So when there isn’t any industry left in the PNW to support to population what then?? I know, I know, that won’t happen. Really?? What it takes to do business here is BS, it shouldn’t be this hard to get permits, it shouldn’t take two to three years for environmental impacts! These are the reasons companies either leave or go somewhere else. It’s to damn bad some people can’t figure that out. So what kind of “clean” economy do you think could be supported in the PNW? If the two ports start loosing the container traffic do any of you understand the impact on jobs that will have?? Or do any of you care? This coal export fight is about jobs, and all the straw pulling arguements that are put out there is exactly that, grasping at straws. From the over exaggeration of help concerns of coal dust blowing off railcars, to the rivers or tut sound. The dust that you see at other older terminals won’t be like that at the new terminals.

      • Eric de Place says:


        No one’s arguing against container shipping. In fact, containerized shipping would presumably be harmed by coal exports, which would clog railway and other infrastructure in the region.

        Second, if you find me an example of a clean coal-export facility, I will write about it here.

  2. canyonguy26 says:

    …I would like information on the newer coal terminals such as in Texas, and while not new, the Bulk Facility at Long Beach? It is not fare to compare dust problems of a 40 year old facility to modern technology and design, and say “this is the way it is going to be”……

    • Eric de Place says:

      I’d like info on those too. If you’ve got it, please send it!

      When you say the facility at Long Beach are you referring to LAXT? If so, I believe there were at least two relalatively serious fires there when it was handling coal.

      Also, I’ll note that older facilities like Seward have been recently retrofitted and yet they still appear to be serious problems.

      • canyonguy26 says:

        I wasn’t referring to LAXT, but that would be worth looking at. I do not remember a dust problem or complaints. Even that port had technology that is 20 years old. Dust mitigation is even better now….

        Regardless of Dust……. the job benefits, local and national revenue income would be huge. That money would be highly welcomed by schools, and local economies.

        Is coal dust the biggest potential problem you can find? To me it sounds like building these ports is a no-brainer…BUILD THE PORTS!

      • Eric de Place says:

        No, coal dust is not the biggest problem I can find. (That would be global climate change, with human health impacts as a runner-up.)

        But coal dust is a pretty serious issue for communities that are considering whether or not to export coal. I know I sure would be worried if someone wanted to ship coal out of my neighborhood.

  3. canyonguy26 says:

    As for your argument stopping Northwest coal ports will stop exports… I believe your argument is dying more and more every week.

    I have been paying close attention to announcements by ports and coal companies, and nearly weekly or at least monthly there is another new announcement for for X-million tons out of a Texas Port. While it may be further to Asia, some coal will make it to China. More importantly the coal will fill a gap where traditional European suppliers move export to Asia, US suppliers fill in the supply gap. The same amount of coal gets burned, it simply goes to another continent.

    The same can be said for Westshore and Ridley. Westshore is supposedly running at capacity yet your own numbers show more and more coal heading north thru Seattle. Could it be more Met coal is moving to Prince Rupert making more room for US coal?

    • Eric de Place says:

      I don’t agree (big surprise). But I’m not going to respond now because I try to tackle these macro topics in posts that provide real data and trend analysis for global coal shipments, and shipments from BC in particular. (Posts like this: and this:

      If you have data or other evidence, please don’t hesitate to share.

      • canyonguy26 says:

        Your evidence shows a continued rise in exports thru Seattle, while Westshore is supposedly at capacity…..

      • canyonguy26 says:

        Maybe you could start including coal exports thru Texas in your numbers….

      • Eric de Place says:

        The numbers actually show a decline in the third quarter. But if Westshore really is at capacity now, it’s probably only because of the sudden increase during most of the last two years. As recently as 2009, they reported that they were nowhere near capacity.

        I’ll take a look at Texas and other regions, as well.

  4. canyonguy26 says:

    Coal exports, actually exports of most everything always fluctuate.

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