The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Coal Report shows that coal mining employment has declined in the past decade as coal demand has decreased. Most U.S. coal is consumed in the electric power sector and has faced increased competition from electricity generation from natural gas and renewable technologies. U.S. coal mining employment fell from a high of 92,000 employees in 2011 to 54,000 employees in 2018, with the most dramatic decrease in the Appalachian region.
Annual U.S. coal production peaked in 2008, three years before coal mining employment reached its record high. In 2008, the United States produced 1.2 billion tons of coal from 1,458 mines. Since then, coal production has fallen and many mines have closed: in 2018, U.S. coal production was 756 million tons from 679 mines. As was the case with employment, much of coal’s production decline was concentrated in the Appalachian region. More than half of the region’s mines have closed since 2008, and production has fallen from 390 million tons in 2008 to 200 million tons in 2018.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report
Appalachian mines tend to be smaller than mines in the Interior and Western regions and to use labor-intensive underground mining techniques, as opposed to machinery-intensive longwall mining and surface mining operations. A slight increase in coal mining employment in the Appalachia region from 2016 to 2018 corresponded to an increase in coal exports because this region is the dominant source of coal shipped overseas.
The decline in operating mines has been steeper than the changes in employment and production. EIA’s review of operating mines showed that smaller mines have had greater difficulty competing in the current market and have been the first to close.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report
As smaller, less productive mines were idled or closed, overall coal labor productivity, measured in tons per labor hour, gradually increased from 5.2 tons per labor hour in 2011 to 6.2 tons per labor hour in 2018. The large surface mines in the Powder River Basin (PRB) in Wyoming and Montana have much higher productivity, but even PRB productivity has declined as the region’s producing coal seams become deeper and the amount of overburden, or top soil and rock above the coal seam, increases.
In contrast, the Appalachia and Interior regions both have shown improvements in labor productivity between 2011 and 2018, largely because they are increasingly relying on less labor-intensive longwall and highwall mining systems and closing or idling the least productive mines.
Data from EIA’s Annual Coal Report are available in EIA’s Coal Data Browser. In addition to data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, EIA’s Annual Coal Report also includes mine-level data from EIA’s Survey of Coal Production and Preparation and coal exports data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
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This winter, natural gas prices have been at their lowest levels in decades. On Monday, February 10, the near-month natural gas futures price at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) closed at $1.77 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). This price was the lowest February closing price for the near-month contract since at least 2001, in real terms, and the lowest near-month futures price in any month since March 8, 2016, according to Bloomberg, L.P. and FRED data.
In addition, according to Natural Gas Intelligence data, the daily spot price at the Henry Hub national benchmark was $1.81/MMBtu on February 10, 2020, the lowest price in real terms since March 9, 2016. Henry Hub spot prices have ranged between $1.81/MMBtu and $2.84/MMBtu this winter heating season (since November 1, 2019), generally because relatively warm winter weather has reduced demand for natural gas for heating. Natural gas production growth has outpaced demand growth, reducing the need to withdraw natural gas from underground storage.
Dry natural gas production in January 2020 averaged about 95.0 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), according to IHS Markit data. IHS Markit also estimates that in January 2020 the United States saw the third-highest monthly U.S. natural gas production on record, down slightly from the previous two months.
IHS Markit estimates that U.S. natural gas consumption by residential, commercial, industrial, and electric power sectors averaged 96 Bcf/d for January, which was about 4.4 Bcf/d less than the average for January 2019, largely because of decreases in residential and commercial consumption as a result of warmer temperatures.
However, IHS Markit estimates that overall consumption of natural gas (including feed gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities, pipeline fuel losses, and net exports by pipeline to Mexico) averaged about 117.5 Bcf/d in January 2020, an increase of about 0.2 Bcf/d from last year. This overall increase is largely a result of an almost doubling of LNG feed gas to about 8.5 Bcf/d.
Because supply growth has outpaced demand growth, less natural gas has been withdrawn from storage withdrawals this winter. Despite starting the 2019–20 heating season with the third-lowest level of natural gas inventory since 2009, by January 17, 2020, working natural gas inventories reached relatively high levels for mid-winter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) data on natural gas inventories for the Lower 48 states as of February 7, 2020, reflect a 215 Bcf surplus to the five-year average. In EIA’s latest short-term forecast, more natural gas remains in storage levels than the previous five-year average through the remainder of the winter.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), January 2020 was the fifth-warmest in its 126-year climate record. Heating degree days (HDDs), a temperature-based metric for heating demand, have been relatively low this winter, which is consistent with a warmer winter. During some weeks in late December and early January, the United States saw 25% to 30% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average. This winter, through February 8, residential natural gas customers in the United States have seen 11% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center data
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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