Have rumors of coal’s death been greatly exaggerated? For years, it had been reported that Coal Country was on the brink of devastation as markets worldwide, including China, had been transitioning from the energy material and into greener alternatives, like natural gas and renewables. However, in the post-pandemic economy, it might be a matter of what is old is new again, with a growing number of nations depending on the rock for their energy needs. Is the treasured Christmas gift making a comeback, or is it a temporary substitute until the commodities supercycle subsides and international commerce stabilizes? Gift givers might put that lump of coal back as stocking stuffers this year.
Green Europe Goes Dirty
Europe has talked about fighting carbon emissions and adopting policies that would embrace windmills and solar panels. But until there is a windmill next to the Eiffel Tower and Stonehenge, the continent is relying on natural gas to power households and businesses on the other side of the coronavirus-induced lockdowns. The problem? European countries are running low on natural gas inventories, unable to meet skyrocketing electricity demand. The solution? Coal.
According to new data from Axpo Solutions AG, coal usage in Europe has advanced as much as 15% so far this year, led by Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. The trend is a remarkable setback for European leaders ahead of climate negotiations in Scotland later this year as they try to balance being green with imbibing the energy source of yesteryear.
“Energy demand has been pretty strong in Europe and we have seen a recovery from the pandemic,” Andy Sommer, team leader of fundamental analysis and modeling at Swiss trader Axpo Solutions AG, told Bloomberg. “Gas storage is so low now that Europe cannot afford to run extra power generation with the fuel.”
These developments are not only concentrated in Europe. China, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States are turning to the dirtiest fossil fuel to keep the lights on.
The surging demand is lifting global coal prices to multi-year highs. Spot coal in Pennsylvania is up 22% year-to-date, high-quality thermal coal in Newcastle is at a decade high, and Northwest European coal has rallied more than 6% since the middle of May. IHS Markit projects that these prices could be the norm heading into the fourth quarter.
Could this fuel the rebirth of Coal Country? The industry appears to be getting prepared, even if consumption is forecast to be brief and even lower this year than in 2019.
A Comeback Story for Coal
U.S. production is estimated to rise 7.8% in 2021 and 2.7% in 2022, according to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Short-Term Energy Outlook. Coal exports are predicted to increase more than 22% this year, and 4.5% the following year. Overall, shipments are anticipated to represent fewer than one-fifth of total U.S. coal output in 2021 and 2022.
The United States will not be the only market to capitalize on the temporary coal boom. A new study by Global Energy Monitor found that more than 400 new coal-mining projects are being established with an annual production capacity of 2.28 billion tons. Australia, China, India, and Russia will account for three-quarters of these new endeavors.
“While the IEA (International Energy Agency) has just called for a giant leap toward net zero emissions, coal producers’ plans to expand capacity 30% by 2030 would be a leap backward,” said Ryan Driskell Tate, Global Energy Monitor research analyst and lead author of the report, in a statement.
However, Driskell Tate believes these new investments could suffocate companies with as much as $91 billion in non-performing assets since “new mines and expansions of existing mines will be producing coal for a world in which coal is unviable economically, and untenable for the environment.”
China has stated that it expects to lower its emissions to a peak by 2030 and net zero by 2060. Beijing also noted that it would begin to slash coal output beginning in 2026. The world’s second-largest economy has seen its coal-fired power plants rushing to accumulate supplies prior to the zenith of summer demand. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has also pledged to crack down on speculation and hoarding that federal regulators believe have contributed to the spike in coal prices. Suffice it to say, much of the activity is occurring in the mouth of the red dragon.
Is Coal Here to Stay?
For now, Coal Country could enjoy a temporary revitalization. Natural gas has become too expensive for gas-fired electricity-generation utilities, logistics have made greening the grid more challenging, and inventories are being exhausted. The short-term boost might perturb the green lobby and environmentalists and throw a wrench in the Great Reset. But it is welcomed relief for the thousands of workers in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, West Virginia, and Montana who have seen their livelihoods dissipate due to government intervention and market forces. Coal-mining employment has collapsed to a record low, and the long-term trends paint a bearish portrait for the sector. Nevertheless, the transitory gains could afford many families in Middle America the opportunity to survive the economic uncertainty in the post-COVID economy, even if that means emitting some carbon that pales in comparison to what China and Russia will be discharging into the air.
Read more from Andrew Moran.