Commodities and Derivatives: Statistics that suggest the outlook for coal isn't so black

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ROLAND WILLIAMS had better be careful what he says in Britain's mine closure areas. 'The power generation sector cannot survive without coal,' he declares. 'Its future is bright for many decades.'

Mr Williams might be expected to wear rose-tinted spectacles - he is managing director of Shell Coal International - but he does have figures to back up his claim.

In 1990 coal fuelled nearly 40 per cent of the world's electricity consumption - twice as much as any other fuel. 'Although coal's share may fall to around 30 per cent by 2020, annual consumption in absolute terms will rise from 1.9 billion tonnes a year to more than 2.5billion tonnes,' Mr Williams says.

Coal is not usually considered a commodity, simply because a relatively small proportion is traded. Last year 217 million tonnes of steam coal for power generation was shipped around the world, alongside 190 million tonnes of coking coal for steelmakers.

But this was a fraction of total production. World consumption of steam coal alone was 1.9 billion tonnes. Most coal is produced and burnt in the same countries, notably the US and China.

The steam trade has, however, been growing fast. In 1973 only 17 million tonnes were shipped. Gerard McCloskey, of McCloskey Coal Information Service, believes the trend will continue.

'New power stations that will rely on imports are being built in Japan, South Korea and China,' he says. 'And US acid rain legislation will mean some stations will import more low sulphur coal from Colombia and Venezuela.' Apart from the South Americans, the main beneficiaries are likely to be South Africa, Australia and possibly Indonesia.

The real story about the coal trade is, however, about price. The traded market played a vital role in the decline of the British mining industry. One argument used by the power generators in justification of their switch from British Coal was that the world price was lower. They even built terminals so that they could import it if necessary.

But Michael Prior, a coal consultant, feels the world price is not high enough to generate the revenues needed to sustain the industry. 'Coal seems to be in a perpetual state of price depression,' he says. 'Because there are a small number of buyers and quite a few producers, buyers can control the market.'

Production has continued to increase despite the dodgy economics. 'Mine companies are always starting projects without a decent rate of return,' Mr Prior says.

Widespread state support has encouraged investment. Existing mines have been expanded at little extra cost and some projects, including Exxon's vast Colombian development, began when prices were high during the latest oil crisis and took on their own momentum.

The steam price played into the generators' hands by falling steadily during their negotiations with British Coal. In January 1991, McCloskey Coal Information's price marker for steam coal, delivered to Europe, was 89p a gigajoule. By September 1992 it was 74.5p. The new low price agreed by the generators and British Coal was pounds 1.50, though this included the sometimes hefty cost of transporting the coal from port to power station.

The price in sterling terms shot up after the Black Wednesday devaluation, but last summer the 'real' dollar price also started to rise. Strong demand in North America and Asia, along with a collapse in Russian supplies and constraints on South African and Australian exports, have all helped the it back up. Last July the McCloskey dollar marker stood at dollars 1.29 a gigajoule. It is now dollars 1.40.

Mr McCloskey says he is circumspect about predicting prices, but believes they will continue to escalate. Banks are less willing to finance new developments and producers are concentrating on buying existing capacity rather than starting new mines. Add this to expanding demand from generators, and it is easy to see why prices should rise.

This will be little comfort to the ex-miners of Britain, but it should at least mean that when the generators come to negotiate with the privatised remnants of British Coal in three years' time their hand will not be as strong as it was last time.

(Photograph omitted)