December 22, 2017 Read More →

WSJ: ‘The Climate for Coal Just Got Even Chillier’

Wall Street Journal:

It’s been a pretty good 18 months for the coal industry following the disastrous price crash of 2015, but on Tuesday miners got a big lump in their stockings.

BHP, the world’s largest mining company, announced it is reconsidering it’s membership in the U.S. Chamber of Congress, a skeptic on the latest global climate deal brokered in Paris, and may quit the World Coal Association, the industry’s lobby group. BHP cited the WCA’s support for abandoning Australia’s proposed Clean Energy Target as one reason for its preliminary decision to bow out.

BHP’s action is largely symbolic but it still smarts coming from one of the grande dames of the mining world. It also comes as Rio Tinto, BHP’s big rival down under, is rapidly selling down its coal assets.

The move is, of course, partly about public relations. But big companies like BHP and Rio ultimately make their decisions based on the bottom line, and BHP’s latest move is another sign that the business case for coal as a power-generation fuel is rapidly weakening—despite efforts by the Trump and Turnbull administrations to prop it up.

Nearly 20% of BHP’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (Ebitda) in fiscal year 2017 came from coal, and return on capital employed was a healthy 23%, higher than for all its other major commodities except iron ore. But most of that juice comes from metallurgical coal—used to make steel—and not thermal coal for power generation. BHP estimates that every $1 change in met coal prices will move its 2018 Ebitda by $43 million, compared with $18 million for every equal change in thermal coal price.

Both types of coal, like most commodities, have done well in the past two years—roughly doubling in price since the end of 2015. But their outlooks are radically different. Large quantities of met coal will be needed for the foreseeable future for steel production, and good alternatives are lacking. Thermal coal, on the other hand, must compete for power-sector market share in a world awash in cheap natural gas and ever cheaper renewables.

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