The re-awakening of coal in Europe

COAL was not high on the agenda at this week’s Mines and Money conference in London but as Hogsback chatted to delegates it became obvious sentiment towards coal was changing – for the better.

Tim Treadgold

Two issue seem to have been responsible for the refreshingly positive tone in conversations with British and European investors.

Firstly, the price of thermal coal has been just as popular political wisdom says it ought to be: stuck in the basement.

Secondly, because the overall energy equation in Britain, and across the wider European Union, is fast morphing into a crisis thanks to the lunacy of massive tax support for “green” energy that is starting to bite consumers and industry.

The price rise was the most obvious and most welcome of this week’s events with the Financial Times getting into the act with a headline reading: King coal leaps back to life as prices rally.

The tenor of the report was that a wave of demand had boosted the spot coal price at Newcastle in Australia and Richards Bay in South Africa by about 9% over the past three months.

Supply remained strong, and would potentially swamp the market as coal producers rushed to peel off a slice of the higher prices, though that’s a point The Hog is not totally comfortable with thanks to the second point factor at work; Europe’s green nightmare.

What is happening is largely a function of price and demand with coal sitting in the box seat as far as price is concerned and demand being grossly distorted by government (and lobby group) preference for green energy, no matter what the cost.

Obviously, as anyone with an inkling of business intellect would understand there is a point approaching when industrial energy consumers and households will snap because either they risk being bankrupted by power bills, or are forced to relocate to a country with affordable energy, such as the US.

At the same time thermal coal prices have been rising to around $US83 a tonne a number of major British companies have been lobbying the government over their power bills.

Green taxes, a shorthand way of describing a multitude of levies and charges associated with attempts to encourage investment in wind and solar energy projects (none of which operate at a profit) were said by Tata Steel and the big chemical maker, Ineos, to be destroying the businesses.

The issue, which The Hog has explored before, is that governments across the European region (and in Britain) reckon they can raise taxes from industry (and households) to subsidise green power in the hope that it will one day develop the critical mass to become a mainstream source of energy and therefore become cheaper as the volume of production rises.

Said quickly, and without thinking too hard, there is a glaring error in that logic and that is the assumption that by throwing enough money at green power schemes the magic day will be reached when it replaces traditional energy sources such as coal, nuclear and gas.

No-one, unfortunately for European power consumers, knows when the changeover point will be reached, or what it will cost to get there, or whether so much damage will be done to the region’s industrial base that overall electricity demand will decline, further weakening the ability of taxpayers to subsidise green schemes.

A director of Ineos, one of the world’s biggest chemical makers, told the FT that the energy situation in Britain had reached a crisis point.

“We will not have an energy intensive sector in this country in 20 years-time,” he said. “You already see chemical companies closing assets, steel companies closing assets. At some stage you to take a decision and ask is this OK, or is it not OK.”

If The Hog was a betting man he’d reckon even the dopiest politician was going to see the rush away from coal-fired power generation and the attempt to embrace green alternatives was fast becoming an impossible undertaking.

Industry, scorched by high power bills, is turning to suppliers of lower-cost electricity and that invariably means coal, which is one reason the coal price started to rise in August.

Households, who will ultimately force government to see the monumental mistake made in going down the green power route, will join the industrial revolt over the northern winter as their electricity bills go through the roof.

There is, from what The Hog has seen this week during a visit to Europe and Britain, an inevitability of what is happening and it all comes down to the winner in any business battle being the most cost efficient supplier.

For the past few years the cost advantage of coal has been distorted by government subsidies of green alternatives but as consumers wake up to the game being played they will demand a switch back to coal on the grounds of price and reliability.