Hogsback on coal demand v carbon tax

EVER had the feeling there are two places called planet earth? Hogsback did this week when hearing the Australian government plans to ram through its anti-coal carbon tax while he was also reading the latest coal demand forecasts from an investment bank.

Tim Treadgold

On Earth 1 there are conventional economic forces at work called supply and demand, and a few billion people who like to turn the lights on at night and use lots of electrical appliances and tools to make life easier – with most of the power coming from coal.

On Earth 2, the planet occupied by the Australian government, there is a belief that the supply-demand imperative no longer works, that lighting and air-conditioning are for wimps, and that there is no longer a need for the big dollops of electricity that come from baseload, coal-fired power stations.

Far better, say the residents of Earth 2, that the world drop 10,000 years of development and embark on a bold experiment which calls for the abandonment of proven power-generation technologies and pray that new and commercially-unproven technologies will plug the gap.

Perhaps the residents of Earth 2 are right. Perhaps the rules of economics and human development have changed. Perhaps pigs may fly!

If there is one certainty out of conflicting carbon tax and coal demand signals received this week it is that whatever happens in Australia will be totally ignored by the rest of world.

Beyond Australia’s borders, where Earth 1 begins, people have little time (and less money) to waste on bold economic experiments such as switching power sources without proof that the new source will be as cost effective or even work as promised.

It was with those thoughts about Earth 1 and 2 that The Hog absorbed the news about the carbon tax, which a deeply unpopular government hopes will displace asylum seekers and naughty members of Parliament from the headlines.

For a while the carbon tax will act as a political circuit breaker, but not for long, and probably not in the way the government hopes, because the way the world really works is so totally different to the way Canberra thinks.

Proof that no one outside Australia is thinking the same way as Canberra can be found in the latest numbers from Citigroup Global Markets, where coal is the one commodity likely to enjoy continued strong demand over the next few years.

Base metals, gold and even iron ore are tipped to suffer modest downturns as the world struggles through a second dose of the global financial crisis.

The copper price next year is forecast to fall by 11%. Aluminium will drop by 13.7%. Nickel will crash by 22.9%, and zinc will slide 17% lower as demand for most (but not all) commodities declines.

Coal, undoubtedly to the annoyance of the Australian government, will remain strong with the price of metallurgical quality material slipping slightly, but the price of thermal coal rising steadily.

How can this be so? How can the price of thermal coal continue to rise at a time when the people running the Australian government want it to fall, and are actively encouraging it to fall by rushing through a tax on carbon?

Well, the answer is a bit embarrassing for the government because most countries are increasing their consumption of coal.

China and India are leaders in demanding more imported coal (from Indonesia, South Africa and Australia), Japan has made a significant return to the thermal coal market after its nuclear problems, and Germany is also back in the market after opting to shut seven of its nuclear power stations.

Overall, thermal coal imports by major customers, according to Citi, will rise from 714 million tonnes this year to 780Mt in 2012 and then up to 823Mt in 2013.

That rising demand trend will be matched by a coal price rising from an average of $US122 a tonne this year to $139/t next year and $148/t in 2013.

Citi, of course, could be wrong. Global coal demand could fall as the Australian government mounts its carbon-tax attack on coal and other fossil fuels – and, of course, pigs may fly.

The stark truth that Canberra will be forced to face, sooner or later, is that most people live on Earth 1. They want reliable supplies of electricity and are prepared to pay for something that is not a luxury – it is a necessity.

Meanwhile, on Earth 2 the chattering class of Canberra talks itself into a political grave with carbon tax carved on its tombstone.