On June 30, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) issued its “Quarterly Coal Report” covering the first quarter of 2014.

The report includes data on coal production, exports, imports, receipts, prices, consumption, quality, stocks, and refined coal. U.S. coke production, consumption, stocks, imports, and exports are also provided in the EIA report.

Of particular note was the fact that coal stocks fell to their lowest level—165.4 million tons—since the first quarter of 2006. The 16.2% decline from the previous quarter was blamed on cold weather across the nation, causing electric power generators to draw down their stockpiles. Stocks in the electric power sector fell more than 20% to 118.0 million tons.

As one might expect, based on the drop in coal stocks, consumption was up in the first quarter, totaling 248.6 million tons—10% higher than the previous quarter. The electric power sector used more coal in the first quarter of 2014 than over the same time period in either of the two previous years. Electric power consumption amounted to 231.7 million tons or 93.2% of all U.S. coal consumed in the first quarter.

Imports increased slightly, with over two-thirds of the total coming from Columbia. However, steam coal exports were still more than four times the amount of total imports.

And while coal stocks have been trending lower over the past couple of years, coal users have also been modifying their purchasing behaviors. SNL Energy reported that at least three coal producers—Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Arch Coal Inc., and Peabody Energy Corp.—have seen long-term coal supply agreements shrink.

According to the SNL data, only 16% of coal delivered in March 2014 had five or more years left under contract, compared to 20% at the same time in 2010. Coal delivered with less than one year remaining under contract rose to 49% of deliveries in March 2014 versus only 40% four years earlier. The change is purportedly due to electric power generators being unwilling to lock in prices because of increasing regulations and the effect of natural gas cost fluctuations.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)