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Coal prices surge to top oil, liquid natural gas and copper, leading to unexpected boom for miners


Workers enter the shaft of a primitive coal mine outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo: Reuters

Workers enter the shaft of a primitive coal mine outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo: Reuters

Workers enter the shaft of a primitive coal mine outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo: Reuters

Many a swan song has been sung for thermal coal markets as renewable power generation and a push towards using more natural gas have gained traction.

Yet a coal price spike last year, driven by a Chinese change in regulation that capped local mining operations, has shown how easily markets can swing from oversupply to shortfall.

While many analysts and investors see the long-term outlook for coal as bleak due to policies and technological advances that favour cleaner natural gas and renewable in power generation, the shorter-term outlook for the industry has seen a sharp reversal of fortunes.

This year, strong demand growth in Asia's emerging markets will create a supply shortfall for the first time in at least half a decade. Consumption could even soon rise past the 2014 peak, according to Asia's largest commodity trading house, Noble Group.

Despite coal's high levels of pollution, utilities and governments in emerging economies, at least for now, largely prefer coal-fired power stations over other fuels including natural gas in order to meet soaring energy demand.

While gas and solar prices have fallen sharply, coal remains one of the cheapest, easily available, and most easily maintained sources of electricity.

More than 10 gigawatt (GW) of coal-fired power stations were sanctioned for construction last year in Southeast Asia, where most new demand stems from, compared to just 4.6 GW of gas-fired projects, according to energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. "New markets like the Philippines and Vietnam are starting to seek our coal," the chief executive of Indonesian coal miner PT Bukit Asam, Arviyan Arifin, told Reuters this week.

Rodrigo Echeverri, head of thermal coal analysis at Noble, believes this year's global thermal coal market will be 13 million tonnes short of meeting 911 million tonnes of demand, compared with a broadly balanced market in the last three years.

The tightness is a result of falling output after some companies including US giant Peabody Energy, filed for bankruptcy, and other miners cut output at unprofitable mines.

At the same time, Chinese imports grew by 43 million tonnes as a result of restrictions on local production, while new coal-fired power plants were commissioned in countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Echeverri told a conference in South Africa this month.

To meet the imminent shortfall, some miners have again begun ramping up output.

Indonesia, the world's biggest thermal coal exporter, said this month it is targeting production of 470 million tonnes in 2017, compared with its previous goal of 413 million tonnes and up more than 8 percent on last year.

There are also signs that Australian thermal coal output is picking up, with exports from Queensland hitting a record last year.

Even so, the shortfall in supply could reach 28 million tonnes by 2020, meaning more new mines would need to be opened by the mid-2020s to meet demand, Echeverri said.

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Most commodities, including thermal coal, crude oil, copper or liquefied natural gas , have seen price rises since early 2016 as part of a broad-based rally. Australian thermal coal has performed best, rising 53 percent price versus 48 percent for oil, 25 percent for copper, and just 8 percent for Asian LNG.

Because of this, companies focusing on seaborne coal supplies fared better than other miners or oil and gas producers.

"For pure coal players, the rise in prices from June 2016 ... provided the catalyst for improved export sales margins given that many producers were actively managing their production costs," said Patrick Markey, managing director of commodity advisory Sierra Vista Resources in Singapore.


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