Report: Mountaintop removal coal exports rising

July 19, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

As House Republicans this morning begin another in a series of their hearings trying to somehow turn the federal Office of Surface Mining’s somewhat bumbling efforts to rewrite the stream “buffer zone” rule into an attack on jobs as part of the Obama administration’s alleged “war on coal,” House Democrats are taking a different approach. They’re releasing a fascinating new report that documents where an increasing share of coal from mountaintop removal coal mining is going.

The report, called “Our Pain, Their Gain: Mountains Destroyed for Coal Shipped Overseas,” concludes:

Coal exports have nearly doubled since 2009 to 107 million tons last year, now accounting for almost 12 percent of U.S. production. Three out of every four tons that are exported come from the Appalachian region, and often this coal is produced by mountaintop removal mining — a devastating practice that has blanketed communities with soot, contaminated drinking water, and destroyed 2,000 miles of streams.

Specifically, a review of government data by Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee found:

— Ninety-seven mountaintop removal, steep slope, and surface mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Virginia exported American coal overseas in 2011, compared to 73 in 2008.

— Coal exports from surface mines in these four states have grown by 91 percent since 2009 to 13.2 million tons in 2011.

— Twenty-five  of these mines exported more than half of their production in 2011. And six of these mines exported nine out of every 10 tons they produced last year.

— Overall, these 97 mines exported 27 percent of their production in 2011. In 2008, mines participating in the export trade sent 13 percent of their production overseas.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and the committee’s ranking Democrat, just told this morning’s hearing:

While coal companies are more than happy to ship this coal overseas to the highest bidder, it’s surely the Appalachian people who bear the greatest cost.


It’s important to remember that exports still make up a small share of coal production, nationwide and in the Appalachian region. As the report notes, even after doubling since 2009 to 107 million tons, exports still account for only 12 percent of U.S. coal production. While this is obviously an imporant trend, it’s far too early to — as anti-mountaintop removal activists are doing today — proclaim that this type of mining is mostly aimed at helping other countries.

14 Responses to “Report: Mountaintop removal coal exports rising”

  1. Dave Cooper says:

    So 75 percent of the coal that is exported comes from Appalachia. Does the report distinguish between metallurgical coal and steam coal?

    It is hard to understand how exporting steam coal overseas could be economically viable.

  2. Miner 2049'er says:

    That report is terribly written and doesn’t address what market is served by the exports (steel, steam, industrial, etc.). No wonder the Committee on Natural Resources hasn’t “officially adopted it.” The interpretation of statistics presented in the report is, put simply, pure crap. The Democrats agenda is very obvious.

  3. Bob Kincaid says:


    These trends demonstrate that even were the U.S. to stop burning coal for electricity, there would still be coal company U.S. “citizens” (Alpha, Arch, etc.) in Appalachia willing to ruin the health of our innocents, blast away our mountains, poison our water, and devastate our communities for no other reason than to provide coal to foreign powers in exchange for money (albeit lots of it).

    The Communist Chinese will buy all the coal we can ship them. The Russians and Indians seem to have an insatiable hunger for it, too. My suspicion is that the primary impediment to further increases in exports of mountaintop removal coal is a matter of infrastructural limitations on shipping and not absence of demand.

    Do you have data to suggest that this rise in exports is somehow atypical or likely to drop before the last lump of Central Appalachian mountaintop removal coal has gone on what an old song referred to as a “slow boat to China?”

  4. Pragmatic Realist says:

    Some reporters are suggesting that China is going into a slump like the rest of us. Here is a link to an article suggesting that China is importing more coal than it needs, simply because local officials are not reporting the true figures on what is being used. It says that unused coal is piling up at the depots and eventually they will figure out what is going on and stop ordering coal imports for a while. If that happens what will happen to our markets.

  5. Eastwood80 says:

    How much of this exported coal is Union coal? Natural gas is taking the place of coal as far as power is being produced. Sure, we will be paying more for our power in the future, but it will still be available. Don’t be fooled by the coal operators and even our elected officals that West Virginia will die without coal. It just isn’t so. There are other jobs in West Virginia. Maybe not as high paying as coal mining, other West Virginians are getting by ok on these jobs. There will always be coal mining in West Virginia, even if it underground mining. There will always be a UMWA Union is WV. This is just my opinion. I mean no harm to anyone. God bless all miners and their families. Keep up the good writing Ken.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Not surprisingly, anti-mountaintop removal activists rushed yesterday to overstate the case here …

    Earthjustice, for example, initially issued a statement that said:

    “Rep. Markey’s report reveals that coal companies are blowing up our nation’s mountains and harming our own people JUST TO SHIP THIS COAL FOR USE … and energy production overseas. Is this the energy independence the coal industry has been claiming? ”

    After I pointed out (as mentioned in our print story, ) that exports still represent only 11 percent of Appalachia’s surface-mined coal, Earthjustice to its credit revised its staement to say:

    “Rep. Markey’s report reveals that SOME coal companies are blowing up our nation’s mountains and harming our own people just to ship most of the coal for use and energy production overseas. Is this the energy independence the coal industry has been claiming?”

    Really, though, they added the “some” in the wrong place. The truth here is that *some* of the mountaintop removal — a very small percentage — produces coal that goes overseas.

    Still, the Sierra Club tweeted:

    “New Report Shows Mountaintop-Removal Coal Shipped Overseas at Alarming Rate While Locals Pay the Price.”

    Really? Exporting 11 percent of Appalachia’s coal is an “alarming rate”?

    Come now. I questioned that phrasing as well, and later Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign Director Mary Anne Hitt posted a much more accurate tweet:

    “New report released by Rep. Markey finds Appalachian coal exports rising, while locals pay the price.”

    The whole thing reminded me of an op-ed the Gazette published claiming that a third of the coal in trains running through West Virginia was headed for China — a gross overstatement with absolutely no basis in fact.

    Of course, Rep. Markey’s staff was trying to raise a very legitimate point — that the coal industry PR machine’s claims that efforts to more strictly regulate mining (or ban mountaintop removal) are a threat to the nation’s energy supply and our national security.

    Now, it’s fascinating to me that the export rate of coal nationally and in Appalachia, and from mountaintop removal mines, is increasing. These are really interesting numbers. But these numbers hardly make the case — as suggested by some of this blog’s readers and by environmental groups — that if coal exports stopped tomorrow, that would end mountaintop removal.

    And smarter people than me have pointed out other interesting data that perhaps makes the point Rep. Markey’s staff was after in a more concrete way. Matt Wasson over at Appalachian Voices, testified about this other data before the House Natural Resources Committee not long ago. His testimony is online here, and this is the relevant part:

    “According to the Federal Reserve, the productive capacity of actively producing coal mines in the U.S. in 2011 was the highest it has ever been since they began supplying such estimates in 1986. The Fed estimates that productive capacity increased by 1.6% since 2009, when more stringent review of Appalachian mine permits began. The Federal Reserve data also show that the utilization of the productive capacity of active U.S. coal mines was an anemic 77% in 2011 – the lowest it’s been since the Fed began supplying such estimates. The capacity utilization of U.S. mines has averaged 85% since 1986.
    “To put those numbers in perspective, mines that have already been permitted could have produced an additional 138 million tons in 2011 if they were operating at the historic average level of capacity utilization. Notably, that is somewhat more than the 119 million tons produced by all strip mines in Appalachia combined. There could be no clearer evidence that the reason U.S. mines are operating at such a low capacity is because there is insufficient demand for the coal they could produce, and has nothing to do with difficulties companies might face in obtaining new permits for mountaintop removal mines.”

    Of course, not everyone is in search of facts. Sometimes, colorful and sometimes xenophobic soundbites (“Communist Chinese”) are what folks are after. That’s fine if that’s the way they want to play it. Personally, I’m more interested in facts.


  7. Bo Webb says:

    Ken, I don’t know what you consider significant, but to me 27% of mtr coal exported is significant. I for one certainly don’t proclaim MTR coal is exported to help other countries. It is exported to generate profit for the coal company at the cost of destroying Appalachia, its future and its peoples health.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Interesting …

    Some folks like to say coal-fired electricity isn’t that important anymore, because it generates “only” 34 percent of the nation’s power. So in that context, 34 percent doesn’t count for much, but in the coal export context, 27 percent is “significant”?

    That doesn’t compute.

    There is also some serious confusion among many readers about the numbers … that 27 percent figure is the share of coal that is exported only from the MTR mines that participated in the export market. It is most definitely not the share of export coal from all MTR mines in the region.

    House Democratic staff told me there are more than 650 surface mines in the region — only 97 of them exported any coal at all, and of the production at those 97 mines, 27 percent of it went overseas.

    If you look at ALL surface mine production in Appalachia last year, only 11 percent of it was exported — not 27 percent.

    Big difference.


  9. Bob Kincaid says:

    Yes, Ken, it IS a “big difference.”

    Eleven percent is a smaller amount of mountaintop removal coal than 27 percent. So it’s also a lesser amount of our lives, our health and the hopes we hold for our children’s future. Less metaphorical room is required on the boats for our childrens’ gall bladders, brains, lungs, blood supply, livers, and lives. You’re definitely correct.

    The question, though, is at what point the numbers for our children become small enough to be negligible.

    B-T-W, isn’t China a communist nation? If it isn’t, I missed the revolution.

    As Inigo Montoya said in “The Princess Bride,” “. . . that word. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.”

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks for your comment, Bob.

    I certainly haven’t suggested that any number of illnesses or deaths from exposure to mining pollution is negligible — and I believe you know that.

    On the other hand, throwing around phrases like “foreign powers” and “Communist China”, well, that’s simply trying to play on our own worst selves — the part of ourselves that might mistrust “the other” — rather than playing on our best selves, and simply arguing for energy policies that don’t do more damage than they provide in benefits. I believe you know that as well.

    Then again, it never ceases to amaze me that the anti-mountaintop removal movement — the human rights activists like yourself — believe it’s OK to exaggerate, or overstate their case. At some point, if the case against this practice is so strong, I would imagine that the simple facts would be enough.

    Thanks again for the discussion and your commitment to telling the truth and to social justice.


  11. Matt Wasson says:

    I think we should all be grateful to Ken for keeping us straight on the numbers, whether you support ending mountaintop removal or not. It’s true that it doesn’t matter whether 11% or 27% of mountaintop removal coal is exported in terms of the point that Rep Markey was trying to make – that the coal industry’s hogwash about how protecting streams and communities from mountaintop puts our national security at risk is just that… Hogwash.

    But it doesn’t benefit anyone to exaggerate the number. From where I’m sitting in North Carolina, my state is the top consumer of mountaintop removal coal and we consume a lot more than is being exported overseas. It’s ultimately self-defeating – and could lead to some really dumb strategic decisions – if people are falsely led to believe that exports to China are a bigger problem than North Carolina’s or Georgia’s addiction to mountaintop removal coal.

    All that said, I think Rep. Markey did a fine job with the report and it’s a great contribution to the debate. But I will share Ken’s frustration if it leads us to overstate the role of exports in the problem of mountaintop removal – the vast majority of that coal is being consumed by power plants in the Southeastern U.S.

  12. hebintn says:

    In my humble opinion the numbers are immaterial. Given the wealth of environmental and health negative evidence related to MTR, any further export of any MTR coal is unaccepatble since it contributes to the problems in Appalachia. The economic gains by coal companies cannot justify the costs here at home. In a more general sense, given the global impact on the climate of fossil fuel combustion, a major portion of which is from coal, the export of any coal from Appalachia or Wyoming or Australia makes no sense to me. This is a time when we should eliminate subsidies to fossils and do all in our power to grow the transition to any and all clean forms of energy. Will our politicians be miraculously reborn and take true leadership roles?

  13. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    So, are you saying it’s OK to cite inaccurate figures if your cause is just? That’s just nonsense. Facts matter.

    It’s one thing to argue that — well, whether it’s 11 percent of 27 percent of surface mined coal, all mountaintop removal is damaging and should be stopped. But to suggest that getting facts right doesn’t matter is the beginning of the end of rational debate.


  14. JW Randolph says:


    Thanks very much for covering this issue. Ran across this news regarding potential Chinese investment in American coal companies (Triple H in Tennessee is mentioned specifically) you and others who care about this topic might find interesting. Much like this export trend, its at least something to keep an eye on –

    Also, my take on what hebintn is saying is not that its OK to cite inaccurate numbers, but just that any amount of MTR coal exports is unacceptable, regardless of how much above zero it is (see 2nd sentence of their comment.)

    There are lots of problems with being too exact about the data in this report. On the one hand it reports numbers from all surface mining (not just mountaintop removal), while on the other hand it doesn’t include exports handled by third parties. But I think hebintn’s point, and its one I agree with, is that it wouldn’t matter if the actual amount exported was 1% or 10% or 100% of America’s coal. When it comes to mountaintop removal, any amount is too much.


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