Global coal prices have reached an all-time high as countries stop purchasing Russian coal amidst the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Indonesian coal companies have become one of the biggest beneficiaries of this change, with eight companies reporting high realized coal prices, net profits and operating cash flows for 2021 and 1Q22.
These coal companies are not expanding coal capacity, with one or two exceptions, capital expenditure (capex) is mainly for maintenance and there are moves towards non-coal projects. The major exception is the dimethyl ether (DME) project announced by state-owned coal miner PTBA (Tambang Batubara Bukit Asam), but the projects face uncertain financial returns and funding as IEEFA reported in 2020.
In this report, IEEFA highlights that coal prices will likely stay elevated given conflict-induced changes to trade flows. Due to disruptions in shipping schedules, Korea and Japan are likely to buy less Russian coal and substitute with coal from Indonesia and Australia, hence coal prices are likely to stay high.
In the longer term, the new trade flows will likely require time to adjust even following conflict resolution. Therefore, coal prices will be supported during this adjustment process.
Moreover, even if China ends its unofficial ban on imports of Australian coal, it is unlikely to help ease supply pressure. This is because there are already existing buyers for Australian coal since the ban was implemented. Its higher prices could make it likely to be priced out of the Chinese market.
IEEFA’s deep dive into the Indonesian coal sector finds that the eight companies are not reinvesting into new coal capacity. However, two have plans to acquire a new mine (ABM Investama) or build up downstream capacity (PTBA), while taking the opportunity to repay debt.
While this is not surprising, considering the 185 global financial institutions which have clearly stated that they will no longer support coal or coal power plant financing, a lack of new coal supply may mean coal prices continue to stay elevated, putting the onus of energy transition on potential buyers.
In the event that there is conflict resolution, coupled with the EU’s commitment to decarbonize, coal prices are likely to normalize from current levels longer term. Coal companies should not miss the opportunity now to diversify away from coal before the cost to transition gets higher.