U.S. coal exports increased 23% between 2020 and 2021
In 2021, coal exports from the United States increased by 23% to 85 million metric short tons (MMst) from 69 MMst in 2020. Steam coal exports increased by 47% to 40 MMst, and metallurgical coal exports increased by 8% to 45 MMst. In 2021, the percentage of domestic coal production that was exported rose to 15%.
Power plants use steam coal, also known as thermal coal, for electricity generation; homes and businesses also use steam coal for direct heat. Metallurgical coal, or coking coal, is used to produce coke, a primary fuel and reactant in the blast furnace process for steelmaking. Global demand for U.S. metallurgical coal typically is more consistent than for thermal coal because the United States is one of the few suppliers of metallurgical coal.
In 2021, the top five export destinations for U.S. coal were India, China, Japan, the Netherlands, and South Korea. India imported the most U.S. coal for the fifth consecutive year at 15.3 MMst (11.8 MMst, or 77%, was steam coal).
China imported the second-highest amount of U.S. coal in 2021, at 13 MMst (91%, or 11.7 MMst, was metallurgical coal). Shipments of U.S. coal into Japan were split between steam (56%) and metallurgical (44%), and 85% of shipments to South Korea were steam coal for electricity generation. Although the Netherlands is a top importer of U.S. coal, the Netherlands is primarily a transshipment hub to ship coal throughout Europe, and only 10% remains in the Netherlands for its domestic use.
A trade dispute between Australia and China that began in late 2020 resulted in China banning coal imported from Australia. The ban increased demand for metallurgical coal from the United States and other global suppliers. This trade dispute, in addition to relatively high seaborne coal prices, contributed to more U.S. coal exports to Asia in 2021.