The week when coal fought back

COAL 4. Critics 0. It has been a long time since Hogsback saw a scorecard like that in the never ending war of words between the coal industry and its opponents.

Tim Treadgold

Just in case you doubt the number of goals kicked by coal over the past week, and you come from the pro-coal side of the debate, be prepared for a pleasant surprise.

In kicking order coal’s goals were:

  • a buy tip on Australia’s biggest independent stock-exchange listed coal miner, Whitehaven, possibly signalling an end to two traumatic years for the company
  • fresh investment by one of the world’s biggest mining companies, Glencore Xstrata, in South Africa’s coal sector
  • support from the government of Poland for coal to be welcomed into the climate change debate rather than frozen out
  • confirmation that Australia’s biggest brown-coal power station will stay in business for much longer than anyone expected

Coal-knockers will be infuriated by the suggestion that the fuel they hate is staging a comeback but that is only because they refuse to acknowledge the irresistible economic forces that confirm coal as the world’s “go to” energy source.

The problem, which The Hog has discussed in the past, is that no-one has yet devised a replacement for coal as the essential provider of base load power of the sort that drives industry, creates jobs and keeps a country’s economy ticking over.

Attempts to kill coal by claiming that it can be replaced by economically fragile renewable power sources such as wind and solar are being exposed for the myth they are. Nuclear has run into stiff headwinds, and gas is being held back by Nimby (not-in-my-back-yard) protestors who say the sky will fall in if rock fracturing (fraccing) is used to liberate tightly-packed gas.

Worse still for the coal-knockers, is that it has become the low-cost leader, able to provide power at an affordable price.

First goal kicked by coal last week was particularly enjoyable because it has been a long time between drinks for the shareholders in Whitehaven. They have watched their company be kicked down the stairs by a failed corporate raid from wanna-be coal king Nathan Tinkler, bogged down by environmental protests, and then abused by false reports filed at the stock exchange.

Some of the bad news was washed away on Monday when one of the world’s top investment banks, Credit Suisse, put an “outperform” tip alongside Whitehaven thanks to (wait for it) – the prospect of rising profits and a return to paying dividends.

According to the bank Whitehaven shares should rise to $2.75 over the next 12-months, a whopping 83% higher than the stock’s recent price of $1.50.

Driving Whitehaven is a combination of a slow rise in the US dollar price of thermal and pulverised coal injection coal, plus the benefit of a falling Australian dollar exchange rate which should increase the gross profit margin on a tonne of coal from $A1 a tonne this financial year, to $A12/t next year, and then up to $A23/t in 2015 and $A30/t in 2016 – and up further in future years.

Dividend payments should resume in 2015 when the company posts a handsome pre-tax (and other charges) profit $A251 million, rising to $A442 million in 2016.

The second goal for coal was kicked by Glencore Xstrata during a flurry of activity in South Africa to mark its listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, including a plan to spend $US100 million expanding coal production at a number of its mines to cope with rising domestic and export demand.

Poland’s government kicked the third goal when it added its name to a statement from the World Coal Association that coal could play a role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions if governments would help pay for the development of “high efficiency, low-emission, coal combustion technologies”

The statement, timed to coincide with the latest round of climate change talks being held in Poland’s capital Warsaw, also rubbished the anti-coal crusade by pointing out that the climate process had become bogged down by “policy fatigue” – a polite way of saying nothing proposed so far actually works.

In Australia one of the country’s biggest integrated energy suppliers and one of its oldest companies, AGL Energy, confirmed it was delighted with last year’s $450 million purchase of the residual stake in Victoria’s Loy Yang brown-coal power station because coal-fired power in Australia was more likely to rise than fall.

AGL chief executive Michael Fraser said in an interview that the reality of Australia’s energy sector was that 80% of the country’s electricity was generated by coal.

Fraser added that if gas prices surge (which they are tipped to do) and carbon prices stay low (which they are also tipped to do) then coal’s share of the Australian energy cake stood “every chance of growing”

Coal 4. Critics 0.