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The Two Faces of Coal

By Robert Rapier on July 29, 2014

Over the past two and a half decades, a real dichotomy has emerged in the global coal markets. In the Western world, coal consumption is on the decline. If you live in the West and read news articles about coal in the West, you might think that coal consumption is on the decline globally. But you would be very wrong.

In the US, coal consumption has been flat to declining for the past 20 years. Just since 2007, US coal consumption has fallen by more than 20%. This is the primary reason the US leads all countries in reducing carbon dioxide emissions over that same time period. Last year, the US still accounted for 11.9% of the global demand of coal, but the 455.7 million metric tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) that the US consumed was roughly the amount we consumed in 1987.

The story is the same in the European Union (EU). Since 2007, coal consumption in the EU has fallen by 12%. While the consumption decline since 2007 is not as dramatic as that in the US, the decline in EU coal consumption since the late 1980s has been greater. In 1989, US and EU coal consumption were almost identical (480.5 Mtoe for the US versus 487.6 Mtoe for the EU), but then consumption in the EU fell sharply during the 1990s. Today the EU share of the world’s coal consumption is 7.5%.

The story of declining coal consumption in recent years holds true for most of the developed world. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all seen their coal consumption decline since 2008. Japan’s coal consumption was on the decline until the 2010 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, but has been increasing since as Japan tries to make up for the loss of nuclear power. Germany is a notable exception in the EU. It has seen coal consumption rise in three of the past four years, but there too the general trend for the past 40 years has been sharply lower coal consumption.

Consider that in 1980, the US, the EU, and Asia Pacific each consumed some 400 to 500 Mtoe of coal. EU coal consumption never went much beyond that level before beginning to decline to the current level of 285.4 Mtoe. US coal consumption rose a little bit, but topped out at 574.2 Mtoe in 2005.

But in the developing world, coal consumption trends have been very different. In fact, coal’s gains in the developing world are hard to put into perspective. This graphic should help:


In 1980 the combined coal consumption of the US and the EU was 866 Mtoe. Today, the combined coal consumption of the two is 741 Mtoe. But the increase in Asia Pacific’s coal consumption since 1980 is 2196 Mtoe — nearly triple today’s combined coal consumption of the US and EU.

China is the world’s top consumer of coal, and was responsible for the largest share of Asia Pacific’s gains since 1980. Of the 2196 Mtoe increase in coal consumption, China was responsible for 1620 Mtoe — 73.8% of the total gain.  This represents a more than six-fold increase in China’s coal consumption since 1980, which is of course partially explained by the outsourcing of manufacturing from developed countries.

No other country comes close to China’s coal consumption. In 2013, China consumed 1925 Mtoe, 50.3% of the global total. The US was a distant second at 456 Mtoe (11.9% of the global total), followed by India at 324 Mtoe (8.5%), Japan at 129 Mtoe (3.4%), and Russia at 93.5 Mtoe (2.4%).

China also produces the most coal. The 1840 Mtoe mined there in 2013 was 47.4% of the world’s total, but not enough to satisfy China’s coal demand. As with the consumption figures, the US was also a distant second in production at 500.5 Mtoe, which was more than the US consumed and 12.9% of global consumption. US coal exports are on the rise as a result. Following the US in coal production were Australia at 269 Mtoe, Indonesia at 259 Mtoe, and India at 229 Mtoe.

Australia and Indonesia both produce far more coal than they consume, and as a result they are major exporters to Asia. In fact Australia is the world’s top coal exporter, with nearly 90 percent of its exports destined for Japan, China or South Korea. US coal producers would love to expand into this market but are at a geographical disadvantage. Further, there aren’t many options for US producers wishing to export coal from the west coast. As a result, most US coal exports are destined for Europe.

Nevertheless, the US has 26.6% of global proved coal reserves — the most of any country and enough to produce at its 2013 rate for 266 years. At current market prices for coal, these reserves would be valued at some $15 trillion, so there will be tremendous incentive to mine this coal.

Following the US in coal reserves are Russia with 17.6% of global reserves, China with 12.8%, Australia with 8.6%, and India with 6.8% of global reserves. Each of these countries has enough proved reserves to produce coal for at least 100 years at 2013 rates except for China, which has only enough reserves for 31 years of production at its 2013 consumption rate. Russia, on the other hand, has enough proved coal reserves to produce at its 2013 rate for over 450 years.


The global coal markets are the story of skyrocketing consumption in the Asia Pacific region that far more than offsets the consumption declines in the West. The US has the world’s largest coal reserves, and because the US Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to phase coal out in the US, coal producers would like to grow their coal exports. However, these producers are constrained by geography and the availability of west coast coal export terminals in tapping into the growing Asia Pacific market.

The coal sector is one that I have not generally favored for several years. There are some opportunities, but pitfalls abound. More coal producers are likely to end up as the James River Coal Company (OTCMKTS: JRCCQ), which was forced to declare bankruptcy and is planning to auction off its assets as a result of falling coal demand. But even in sectors with such a bleak outlook, sometimes a true bargain may appear. When it does, we will bring that to your attention in The Energy Strategist.  

(Follow Robert Rapier on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.)

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  1. avatar
    John Campbell Reply August 5, 2014 at 5:46 PM EDT

    I purchased arlp in January and am up quite a bit despite the sell off. arlp has a safety rating of 1 and ahgp has a safety rating of 3 with almost the same dividend. What is the main reason the safety rating is so different between the two? Seems I should switch. How is it that AGHP-ARLP seem to do well and grow dividends against the backdrop of decline in the US? Export to Europe?

    • Igor Greenwald
      Igor Greenwald Reply August 6, 2014 at 3:57 PM EDT

      We’re in the process of overhauling the MLP Profits safety ranking system, and in the meantime you should only rely on the safety rankings of portfolio recommendations, of which ARLP isn’t one. For practical purposes, its distribution is every bit as safe as AHGP’s (but no more so), since both derive their cash from the same operating business. The main distinction is that ARLP offers more of a current yield while AHGP is more leveraged to future growth, and I’d evaluate the relative merits of the two strictly on that basis. We’ve obviously preferred AHGP, having recommended it a year ago.

  2. avatar
    Ken Naples Reply August 2, 2014 at 11:27 PM EDT

    It’s unusual to give an account without giving the uses of coal .
    In this article , you do not advise how much coal is being used fro the conversion of coal to oil/ gasoline!
    I would like to find out if there is such a statistic!

    • Robert Rapier
      Robert Rapier Reply August 5, 2014 at 1:41 PM EDT

      Ken, the only place of significance that’s converting coal to liquid fuels is South Africa. Given that their total coal consumption is only 2.3% of the global total — and that includes the coal they use for electricity — it’s a safe bet that less than 1% of global coal consumption is converted to liquid fuels.