Coal production in the U.S. reached its lowest level since 1981 during the first three months of the year, according to a recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In total, coal production was 173 million short tons (MMst) — a number that hadn’t been seen since a massive coal strike during the second quarter of 1981.

During the first quarter of 2015, coal production levels reached nearly 250 MMst, dropping to just over 200 MMst by the fourth quarter of the year. Production continued to plummet into 2016, decreasing by 17% from the fourth quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016 — the largest quarterly decline in 32 years.

Reasons Behind the Decline in Coal Production

Many different factors played into the decrease in coal production, so it’s too soon to tell if this trend represents a permanent decline. Much of the U.S. experienced extremely mild temperatures this past winter season, so people simply didn’t need to turn the heat on as much. Consequently, many power plants were left with stockpiles of coal — the fourth-largest net increase ever recorded for this time period — which were used during the first quarter of the year, instead of placing new orders.

Of course, a push from consumers for clean, renewable energy also plays into the weakening coal industry. An increased focused on eco-friendly energy, paired with a drop in price for natural gas and renewable energy — such as solar and wind power — is causing people to look beyond fossil fuels.

Use of fossil fuels peaked in 2007, but have been steadily falling since. In fact, gas became the dominant source of fuel powering the U.S. in April 2015 for the first time ever. As the government imposes stricter regulations on carbon emissions, fossil fuel usage is expected to continue its decline.

Drop in Coal Production Could Have Huge Environmental Impact

As of 2012, the electric power sector was responsible for 91% of coal consumption in the U.S., according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Coal has the highest carbon content of all fossil fuels, with carbon dioxide emissions encompassing 24.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. during 2012. A permanent decline in coal production, could have a majorly positive impact on the environment, so it will be interesting to see if this trend continues through the winter of 2016 and beyond.

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