Led by coal's downturn, West Virginia exports decline 13 percent to $7.5 billion in 2014

Economic IndicatorsAssociated Press

A sharp drop in coal shipments is being blamed for a 34 percent decline overall in West Virginia's exports since their record $11.3 billion peak in 2012, state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said Friday.

West Virginia, the nation's largest coal exporter, saw its shipments drop from $7.4 billion in 2012 to $3.1 billion in 2014, Burdette said. That's a decrease of 58 percent.

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Steelmakers worldwide rely on metallurgical coal produced in West Virginia, and "if you're not building and consuming as much steel, you're not buying coal," Burdette said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

The chance of seeing a turnaround depends on whether the world coal market can make a comeback, he said.

"Obviously coal's a scary number for us," Burdette said. "We're still outperforming the rest of the country as far as (coal) exports. The situation is not West Virginia falling apart, it's the coal market nationally that's falling apart."

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. coal exports fell 16.5 percent in the first nine months of 2014, the latest figures available, compared to the same period of 2013.

"We don't anticipate a great rebound," Burdette said. "We'd like to see the market stabilize at first."

Overall, West Virginia's merchandise exports totaled $7.5 billion in 2014, down nearly 13 percent from $8.6 billion the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration.

Non-coal exports rose 7 percent, buoyed by an 83 percent leap in machinery-related exports, including auto parts, to $1.25 billion.

Other state exports included chemicals, $1.7 billion; plastics, $1.16 billion; and medical instruments, $262 million.

The top five destinations of West Virginia products remain the same, led by Canada at $1.96 billion. China and the Netherlands were second and third, respectively, at about $550 million, followed by Brazil ($474 million) and Italy ($434 million).

Burdette said state commerce officials plan trips to Canada, Poland, South Africa, Japan and Italy this year to help companies expand their export opportunities.

"Beyond coal, we think it's the tip of the iceberg as far as exports are concerned," he said.

Overall, the United States exported a record $2.35 trillion in goods and services in 2014. Twenty-six states set records, led by Texas with $289 billion.