The rising demand for coal

IF YOU only get your news from Australian daily newspapers, or Australian television, you are forgiven for imagining that the coal industry is in terminal decline. If you are like Hogsback, however, and look further afield you get a totally different picture with the world demanding more coal from Australia.

Staff Reporter

That split picture of positive and negative images was crystal clear last week when environmental opponents to coal grabbed the headlines at home via a fresh attempt to get banks to withdraw funding for coal mines, and through the latest courtroom appearance of their hero, the letter-forging Jonathan Moylan.

Meanwhile, in the more discerning Australian financial media, and in international news outlets a completely different story was emerging. This is one of the coal industry starting its slow climb out of a deep slump that was highlighted by a flow of good news from one of the bigger producers, Whitehaven.

First indication that there is improvement underway at the local coal favorite came with news that production at the Narrabri longwall had exceeded guidance. Then came a surge in the Whitehaven share price to its highest since April, followed by news that construction at the company’s Maules Creek mine has passed the halfway mark.

For an industry that some people hope has entered the twilight zone and will soon disappear, those three events would have served as a wake-up call that coal is very much alive and kicking, merely suffering from a self-inflicted case of overproduction and low prices.

The irony of the low prices is that coal is confirming its place as the world’s “go to” fuel with increasing evidence of it being used to replace high-cost natural gas, and as a reliable source of power in a world becoming increasingly interested in electric forms of transport, obvious in record sales of electric cars.

After digesting the flow of news from Whitehaven there were a number of other events that should further alarm the anti-coal brigade, including:

  • news that India is pushing ahead as rapidly as possible with its expansion of coal-fired power generating capacity, a move likely to win financial support from the US government’s export finance agency
  • Taiwan’s biggest power generator revealing its plan to follow China and India into the Australian coal industry as it too expands its coal-fired power network
  • a remarkable boom in demand for graphite and vanadium, which highlight the speed at which the world is moving towards even greater electrification of industry and transport systems
  • a modestly optimistic (but optimistic nevertheless) forecast for an uptick in the coal price from 2016 by the top investment bank, Merrill Lynch.

The best the opponents of coal could do was plead with banks to stop lending to the coal industry. That is a plea certain to fall on deaf ears because no Australian bank will walk away from the corporate sector just as government pressures grows to cut back on exposure to household mortgages.

Then there was the first budget of India’s recently elected government that emphasized the need to produce (and import) more coal to solve the country’s chronic shortage of electricity.

Potentially helping India achieve that goal is the US government, which is considering financing a massive new coal-fired power station. That is a move that could infuriate anti-coal campaigners in the US.

Taiwan, already a big customer for Australian coal, revealed its desire to buy more (and possibly buy a few coal mines) because it too is facing a shortfall in electricity production.

What worries Taiwan, and the reason it wants more Australian coal, is that the price of other fuels are rising (whereas coal is falling) and the reliability of other power sources are not improving, especially renewable power.

At present, coal provides 38.4% of Taiwan’s electricity. The plan is to boost that share to 41.7%, with coal filling a gap created by a decline in nuclear power production.

While the news from India and Taiwan was welcomed by the coal industry there was also that Merrill Lynch report.

That report points to coal production in four for the world’s major exporters – Australia, Indonesia, South Africa and Colombia – reaching a peak by 2017, with a slowdown in the rate of production growth helping thermal coal prices to resume a slow rise back towards the $US100 a tonne level.

What The Hog has found most interesting though has been the rapid rise in demand for graphite and vanadium. These both have a role to play in the long-term storage of electricity, graphite in car batteries and vanadium in heavy-duty industrial batteries.

Not everyone can see the link back to coal from the graphite and vanadium boom but it is there if you look closely. Basically, better electricity storage capacity means even greater demand for electrically powered products, such as cars, and that means even higher demand for electricity – which, in turn, means higher demand for coal.