America's Using the Least Coal Ever to Keep the Lights On

  • Coal's share of U.S. power output fell to 29% in November
  • Natural gas tops coal as primary power source for fifth month

The U.S. is using the least amount of coal ever to make electricity as cheap natural gas establishes itself as the nation’s favorite power-plant fuel.

Coal’s share of total electricity generation fell in November to a record 29 percent. Natural gas was the dominant fuel for a fifth straight month, making up 34 percent of the U.S. power mix, the Energy Information Administration said in a report Tuesday.

The record low demand underscores how dramatic the collapse of the U.S. coal market has been as low natural gas prices and mounting environmental regulations weaken demand for what was once the source of more than half the nation’s power.

Coal’s share of the power mix in November was “a case of cheap gas and weather,” said Ted O’Brien, chief executive officer of Doyle Trading Consultants in New York. “In my mind, it all but guarantees that natural gas overtook coal in 2015. That trend is likely to continue.”

The Obama administration moved earlier this month to stop leasing federal land to coal developers for three years while it studies the fossil fuel’s environmental impact and considers raising royalty rates paid by mining companies.

Meanwhile, utilities are awash in the fuel. Power plants had about 189 million short tons of coal in the coffers in November, the most since June 2012, the EIA data show.

Powder River coal prices have slumped 13 percent in the past year to $10 a metric ton as of Tuesday in ICE Futures Europe trading. Coal in Central Appalachia is down 4.3 percent to $42.88 a ton on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract, once an industry benchmark, is scheduled to be delisted in December.

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