Coal Faces Fewer Friends

There was a worrying end to the year for the international coal industry, with a swathe of negative developments, including two mine disasters, and things look unlikely to improve in 2019.

Like Comment

Despite the support of President Donald Trump, the coal-mining industry suffered another difficult year in 2018 and two coal-mine disasters in mid-December added to the gloom around the sector.

On December 13, 15 coal miners were trapped underground in India's Meghalaya state after floodwater entered illegal 'rat-hole' workings. The men remain missing, assumed dead, despite a large rescue effort. In these so-called rat-hole operations, miners crawl into narrow shafts on bamboo ladders to extract low-quality coal. Such unregulated mining continues despite being banned in 2014.

A week later, 13 miners were killed in a methane explosion at the CSM coal mine in the Czech Republic, near the eastern town of Karvina, close to the Polish border (from where most of the miners came). The accident is the worst mining disaster in the country since 1990 when 30 miners were killed in a fire at a mine in the same region.

In the US, President Trump has worked to unwind many federal climate rules in the past two years and ease regulatory barriers for the coal industry. A new poll has revealed, however, that most voters support Congress's Green New Deal proposal, which calls for 100% of the country's electricity to come from renewable resources within ten years. The survey of registered US voters was conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Currently, over 80% of the country's power is generated by coal, natural gas or nuclear energy.

The poll showed that 92% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 88% of Independents supported the Green New Deal. Within those brackets, 59% of Democrats said they strongly supported the proposal, followed by 36% of Independents and 15% of Republicans, while 33% of Democrats, 52% of Independents and 49% of Republicans "somewhat" supported the initiative.

Despite this broad support among voters, the Green New Deal is unlikely to be passed into legislation, with President Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate being unlikely to back a complete shift to renewable power. Moreover, although the Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives in the 116th Congress, only about 40 members of Congress have so far endorsed the deal.

Meanwhile, a group working to dissuade insurance companies from covering the coal sector has announced that some of the world's largest insurers will not cover Adani Mining Ltd's controversial 28 Mt/y Carmichael coal mine in Australia.

According to the Unfriend Coal campaign, ten of the world's top insurance companies have explicitly refused to insure the mine, or have pledged not to provide cover for new coal projects. The revelation followed the Adani's recent announcement that the company would be self-financing the project after revising its mining plan to simplify construction and reduce the initial capital requirements.

A co-ordinator of the Unfriend Coal campaign, Peter Bosshard, described Carmichael as an important test case "if insurance companies are serious about combatting climate change and aligning their business with the Paris climate agreement". He added "I think everybody realises this is a really toxic project".

The list of insurance companies includes what the campaign said was the first major US insurer to act on coal, Factory Mutual Insurance Co. More than 37 global financial institutions, including all of Australia's major banks, have already turned down involvement with the US$1.5 billion Carmichael project.

Shortly before Christmas, Energy Innovation, an organisation with a mission to "accelerate progress in clean energy", released four policy briefs aimed at helping regulators, utilities and investors work together to make sure customers benefit from a transition away from coal power generation.

The closure of coal-fired electricity generators has continued across the US. Indeed, Energy Innovation's policy briefs coincided with news that a New Mexico utility regulator had approved PNM Resources Inc.'s long-term plan for power delivery, which includes retiring the remaining units at the San Juan coal-fired generator by the end of 2022.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a target soon after taking power in 2014 of increasing India's renewable energy capacity by 2022 to 175 gigawatts, equivalent to 40% of the country's total power capacity at the time of the announcement. There has been an explosive take-off in India's renewable power sector, and many of the country's coal-fired power plants are now in deep financial distress and private investment in coal power has ground to a near halt.

Mr Modi's ambitions were stoked by a dramatic fall in the price of solar panels after a huge expansion of production in China. Navroz Dubash of New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research said, "You’d have to be quite courageous to invest in coal at this point; the speed with which the story has reversed is quite astonishing".

India's move away from coal power has important implications for the global climate. Per capita electricity consumption by the country's 1.3 billion people is just 38% of the global average, according to the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute, with tens of millions of households still lacking grid connections. The Indian government has made the push for reliable, universally available electricity a key policy priority.

Nevertheless, despite the general despondency as we enter 2019, the International Energy Agency expects global coal consumption to grow about 0.2% annually for the next five years. The agency wrote in its report "Coal 2018: Analysis and Forecasts to 2023," which was released in mid-December, that growth in India and other Asian countries is expected to offset the declining demand for coal in Europe and the US as the world's coal consumption rises from 5,355 Mt (coal equivalent, or Mtce) in 2017 to 5,418 Mtce in 2023.

Overall coal demand grew by 1% in 2017, following two years of decline, as improved global economic conditions yielded more industrial output and power use, and is expected to have grown again in 2018, given the strong coal-fired power generation in China and India.

Nevertheless, the agency projects that coal's share of the world's energy sector will decline from 27% to 25% by 2023 due to competition with renewable energy sources and natural gas. Thermal coal usage is expected to rise slightly from 4,050 Mtce last year to 4,127 Mtce in 2023, while global metallurgical coal consumption is expected to increase through 2019 from 1,027 Mtce in 2017 and then decline to 1,015 Mtce by 2023.

China continues to dominate the world's coal consumption, accounting for 48% in 2017, and the IEA anticipates electricity use will increase in the country's transportation and heating sectors and by its growing middle class. But the agency also expects this growth to taper off as the economy transforms, resulting in a decline in "electricity intensity" and ending coal-fired power growth by 2020. China's coal demand will continue to decline by less than 1% annually on average.

India's coal power generation has grown since 1974, with demand averaging a more than 6% annual increase during the past decade. The subcontinent is expanding its renewables and "supercritical" technology in new coal power plants, which will slow demand growth to less than 4% annually through 2023.

Though India is expected to boost the largest absolute growth in demand through 2023, southeast Asia will have the fastest demand growth with a more than 5% uptick annually through 2023. Southeast Asia is also poised to consume as much coal as the European Union by 2023.

The US was the fourth-largest coal exporter in the world in 2017, trailing Indonesia, Australia and Russia, and the second-largest metallurgical coal exporter. Domestic demand is expected to fall 2.2% per year, from 473 Mtce in 2017 to 413 Mtce in 2023, and output is projected to decline by 2.1% per year from 533 Mtce in 2017 to 469 Mtce in 2023 due to the decline in coal-fired power generation.

The coal sector is clearly a 'sunset' industry. However, with plentiful global coal deposits and the intermittent nature of renewable electricity (with solar plants shutting down at night and wind turbines falling quiet on still days), it is going to be an extended twilight. 

Chris Hinde

Chief Commentator, Mining Beacon

Previously editorial director of Mining Journal, and more recently head of S&P Global Market Intelligence's metals and mining team, Chris is now Mining Beacon's editor-in-chief and lead commentator. He posts two blogs every week, one on Monday reviewing market conditions over the prior week, and a second on Thursday looking at issues on the global mining scene. There is also a quarterly blog on business opportunities in the sector.