You are here: home   Blogs   The Range Blog   Why railroads want coal exports
The Range Blog

Why railroads want coal exports

Document Actions
Tip Jar Donation

Your donation supports independent non-profit journalism from High Country News.

sightline | Jan 12, 2012 06:00 AM

By Eric dePlace,

This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal Exports

Here are three pictures that help explain why American railways seem to be supporting coal export proposals in Northwest. It’s because railways are very closely connected to the coal industry. Consider:

Coal so dwarfs every other rail-hauled commodity that it is almost as important as all the other commodities combined. (N/B, this picture excludes “intermodal” freight.)

But while coal is a huge component of rail freight, it declined noticeably in 2009 and 2010:

Presumably, a good deal of the recent decline is related to a lousy economy and the attendant reduction in demand for electrical power and industrial uses of coal. Yet the recently depressed coal rail volumes are not entirely driven by the economic downtown. In fact, coal fired-power is on a long-term downward trajectory:

Going forward, that downward trend is likely to continue, and perhaps accelerate. Regulators are tightening pollution standards; other power sources like natural gas and renewable energy are becoming increasingly competitive in the marketplace; and communities across the country are averse to coal-fired power for its deleterious health effects.

Power plants are not the only customers that railways service with coal shipments, but they easily constitute the lion’s share. So given the ongoing decline (and dismal future prospects) for domestic coal use, it’s no wonder that railway companies support big new coal export facilities. As Americans are increasingly uninterested in buying coal, railways will want to find consumers—no matter how far afield they may be—who will pay coal to be moved by rail, whether it’s to a power plant or an export terminal.

Notes: I created the first chart using data from the table on page 8 of the American Association of Railroad’s “Rail Time Indicators” report for January 2011. (The AAR data does not combined commodity carload data with figures for intermodal freight, which amounted to 11.3 million trailers and containers in 2010.) The second chart comes directly from page 13 of that same report. The third chart is taken from the most recent rail indicators report, which was published in December 2011.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Originally posted at The Daily Score, a Sightline Institute blog.

Email Newsletter

The West in your Inbox

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Follow our RSS feeds!
  1. The death of backpacking? | Younger people don’t seem interested in this out...
  2. Why I am a Tea Party member |
  3. The privatization of public campground management | All the info you need to decide whether you love o...
  4. The Latest: Interior commits to restoring bison on select lands | The “odd ungulate out” gets a tentative win.
  5. Efficiency lessons from Germany |
  1. The death of backpacking? | Younger people don’t seem interested in this out...
  2. A graceful gazelle becomes a pest | Inrroducing an African gazelle called the oryx for...
  3. What's killing the Yukon's salmon? | An ecological mystery in Alaska has scientists and...
  4. Plains sense | Ten years after Frank and Deborah Popper first pro...
  5. North Dakota wrestles with radioactive oilfield waste | Regulators look at raising the limit for radiation...
HCN Classifieds
Subscriber Alert
More from Energy
On booms and their remains A North Dakota photographer returns home to examine changes to the landscape.
Efficiency lessons from Germany
The Latest: Mining battle update at Utah’s Tavaputs Plateau State supreme court gives green light to tar sands permits.
All Energy
© 2014 High Country News, all rights reserved. | privacy policy | terms of use | powered by Plone