Coal: rise or fall?

By Nina Fowler

Global demand for coal is forecast to increase until 2018 but opposition is rising. Photo / Getty Images
Global demand for coal is forecast to increase until 2018 but opposition is rising. Photo / Getty Images

Just over a year ago, Solid Energy CEO Don Elder resigned. Less than three weeks later, it was revealed that the state-owned company, New Zealand's largest producer and exporter of coal, was carrying $389m in debt. Between October 2012 and October 2013, the company cut over 700 jobs.

It's a story of ambition, risk and, more than anything else, a failure to accurately forecast the international coal market. In the second half of 2012, the global price of coal dropped "far below the range anyone was forecasting anywhere in the world," as Dr Elder told Parliament.

This is unlikely to be the only unexpected setback ahead for coal producers around the world, particularly those trading in thermal coal rather than the premium coking coal used to make steel.

In 2013, the World Bank, US Export-Import Bank, European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development all put new restrictions on financing for new coal-fired plants.

In the US, coal's share of the domestic energy mix is declining, with cheap natural gas drilled or extracted by fracking from shale and other "unconventional" sources pushing it out of the market.

While coal-fired stations still account for about 40 per cent of electricity generated in the US, that's down from 50 per cent in 2007 - and, in September 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed tough new air-quality standards for new power plants.

In the Pacific, China and India are both major importers of coal, with China currently accounting for about half of the world's coal consumption and playing a key role in setting global prices.

According to a December 2013 report by Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, demand in China may not grow as quickly as many in the industry expect, which raises the risk that coal assets could become stranded. This is particularly relevant for Australia, which is currently planning about 90 coal projects including several "mega mines" in Queensland.

"Unanticipated changes in demand for coal from China due to the environment-related factors analysed in this report could place further pressure on coal prices," the report's authors warn. "This is largely ignored by the owners and operators of such assets."

It's not all dark news for coal. While stressing the urgent need to find cleaner ways to use it, to address pollution and climate change, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted in December 2013 that worldwide demand for coal will increase by 2.3 per cent each year on average until 2018.

In China, too, demand is expected to continue to grow, even if the pace of growth drops. New Zealand-based producers, including Solid Energy, export coking coal rather than thermal coal - and those exports will continue to find a home in markets such as India, Japan, Chile and China.

The days of coal as a major energy source aren't over yet. Wise producers, though, should probably assume they're numbered.

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