From the recently released BP Statistical Review of World Energy comes this news: in 2011, coal consumption fell about 5 percent in the US, and by about 9 percent in Canada. For 2011 as a whole, coal consumption fell back to about where it was in 1993.
This is good news for the climate, but can’t be heartening to the coal industry. In North America, coal is mostly used to generate electricity—but with natural gas at rock-bottom prices, efficient gas burners are beating out older, dirtier coal-fired generators in the electricity generation markets. I imagine that the industry is worried about a long-term cycle of disinvestment and decline—similar to what happened in Europe in the 1990s:
There’s little wonder, then, why the US coal industry in Montana and Wyoming is so desperate to get access to Asian markets. Excluding the Asia Pacific nations, total global demand for coal has been flat or declining for decades. So for an industry with huge capital costs, declining prospects in the US, and no other global demand, exporting to Asia probably seems like the only way to stave off a slow death.