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Coal Is Getting Even Closer to the End of Its Line

The U.S. is on its way to using less than at any point since the 19th century.

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Illustration: George Wylesol for Bloomberg Businessweek

In 2020, Americans used 447 million short tons (to distinguish from metric tons) of coal. That’s enough to fill 4 million railroad cars, which sounds like a lot. But it’s also the country’s lowest annual coal consumption since 1965, and even that barely hints at the historical territory coal may soon explore. A few more years at the downward pace of the past decade, and U.S. coal use will reach levels last seen in the 19th century.

This year coal is getting a respite as a roaring economic recovery boosts electricity demand after last year’s pandemic-induced drop. The U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a 12% increase in coal consumption for the year and a slight increase in 2022. After that, though, it’s hard to see what could stand in the way of a resumption of the decline, which averaged 5% a year in the decade before the pandemic.