June 22, 2018 Read More →

Column: Coal optimism in Australia hides unease about long-term problems

Reuters:

BRISBANE—Coal miners supplying Asia’s rapidly growing economies have plenty to be optimistic about as prices and demand appear robust, but they should be wary of getting caught up in the positive feedback loop that nearly destroyed them before.

This week’s inaugural Energy Mines and Money conference in Brisbane, the heartland of the industry in top coal exporter Australia, was a sea of optimism about the outlook for the industry. Prices have been on an upward trend since bottoming in 2016 after five years of losses, and miners are once again making good profits amid strong demand from top importers China and India, new consumers such as Pakistan and the reliable veteran buyers like Japan and South Korea.

But at the back of the minds of many Australian miners is the fear that they have seen this movie before, and they don’t want the same ending. In 2012, the industry was cock-a-hoop over forecasts that pointed to massive import demand growth in Asia, led by China and India. Problem was it was pretty much all wrong.

A well-respected industry consultant and forecaster boldly claimed in early 2012 that China would be importing 1 billion tonnes of coal by 2030, and India would be up to 400 million tonnes. But these forecasts now look hopelessly optimistic, given China’s coal imports were 270.9 million tonnes in 2017. While imports have risen for two years, they are still well below the record 327.2 million tonnes from 2013. While China’s coal imports may rise slightly this year, it’s unlikely they will reach 300 million tonnes, and that 1 billion tonne forecast looks well out of reach.

The [new] optimistic forecasts also fail to account for political pressure to move away from coal, not only in China, but increasingly in India. It’s likely that those countries planning on building coal plants powered by imports will also come under mounting pressure from environmental activists, who have become increasingly sophisticated in targeting how coal plants are financed and insured.

In fact, if there was another common theme to this week’s conference in Brisbane, it’s that the coal sector still doesn’t fully grasp that array of forces now being deployed against it. The mantra of coal as ‘cheap and reliable and the only way to electrify the masses of people still without power’ was still repeated, and clearly believed.

But scratch a little further and miners will tell you of the incredible difficulties in developing projects, with increased government scrutiny and regulation, the rising threat of public opposition and the dearth of financing, notwithstanding a seemingly large pool of investment funds. The inability of India’s Adani to actually start building its Carmichael mine in Queensland, the world’s largest planned mine aimed at supplying the seaborne market, plays on the industry’s mind, as does the virulent public opposition to the mine’s development.

More: COLUMN-Resurgent coal exporters should be wary of blinkered optimism: Russell

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