Saturday, April 7, 2018

Coal shipments are back to the new normal

Last year it looked like coal shipments on the Ohio River had bottomed out and were trending upward again. This year’s first-quarter numbers regressed to where they were in 2016.

High water this year could account for some of the drop in coal traffic, but not for all of it.

The declines in this year’s first quarter compared to last year’s were particularly noticeable at the to dams closest to the mouth of the Big Sandy River — Greenup and Gallipolis Robert C. Byrd. Coal shipments through Robert. C. Byrd were down about 42 percent compared with last year. Shipments through Greenup were down even more — almost 48 percent.

Coal traffic was also down at Racine, which has become the busiest locks and dam on the Ohio for coal traffic. It was also down at McAlpine and Cannelton, which probably handle more coal from the Illinois Basin, but it was up at Smithland and Locks and Dam 52.

Here is a chart comparing first-quarter numbers for the busier locks for coal.

Coal shipments, first quarter (thousands of tons)
Dam20172018ChangePct. change
Pike Island 2,768.7-1,587.7-36.5%
Lock & Dam 524,258.04,300.742.71.0%

The numbers from this year are down, but they tend to track 2016 numbers.

For those who are curious, here are numbers for three locks on tributaries.

Lock & Dam 2 (Monongahela)2,825.51,152.3-1,673.2-59.2%
Winfield (Kanawha)1,474.71,204.2-270.5-18.3%
Kentucky (Tennessee)2,280.71,358.7-922.0-40.4%

Here are first-quarter numbers for Byrd and Greenup:

First quarterR.C. ByrdGreenup

For decades, coal has been the primary commodity moved on the Ohio, especially on the upper half. Much as been written here and elsewhere about the reasons for the decline in coal traffic and what the outlook could be.

It makes me wonder when the time will come that coal barges will be a rare sight on the river.

But at one time we couldn't predict what shale gas and shale oil would do to domestic and international energy markets. So things may change. You never know.