China's war on pollution is finally moving coal prices

China burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined and is reliant on the fossil fuel for two-thirds of total energy consumption and 80% of its electricity generation.

2013 was the 14th consecutive year of rising thermal coal consumption, output and imports for the country – albeit at a slower pace – but 2014 could become a turning point.

China's war on pollution is finally moving coal pricesChina has implemented a number of measures – so far without any major effect – to drive down coal mining output and consumption of close to four billion tonnes per year as part of its "war on pollution".

The country has enacted curbs on consumption, imposed bans on new coal-fired power plants and place limits on its total energy consumption.

China also recently announced it will launch a national emission trading scheme in 2016 in addition to seven regional schemes, creating the largest emissions market in the world.

As a result of these measures Chinese coal imports have steadily declined over the past year and are now at their lowest level since late 2012  (even though efforts to clamp down on small scale mines like the one pictured have been largely unsuccessful).

As yet unpublished regulations banning the import of low-quality coal and placing restrictions on production at the 14 largest domestic coal miners, could really start to move the needle.

The latest regulations banning high-ash and high-sulfur coal imports could slash overseas cargoes by another 80 million tonnes, while the output cuts at domestic producers could take some 190 million tonnes off the market.

This could provide a boost for coal prices – benchmark Australian Newcastle export coal has fallen from the mid-$90 a tonne range in January to below $70 this week as supply continued to rise in the face of moderating consumption .

China's war on pollution is finally moving coal prices

Good call

Bloomberg reports coal prices may advance 10% in the fourth quarter and according to Shi Yan, a Shanghai-based analyst the recovery could gain momentum:

"Coal prices have started to show a recovery since the moment the government decided to step in. The recovery may accelerate going forward.”

The first signs are already evident on Chinese markets with the Bohai-Rim coal index, a Chinese benchmark, rising nearly 1% to 482 yuan ($79) a tonne early, snapping an almost three-month losing streak according to Bloomberg.

A boost to the prospects for thermal coal could also come from India, where the country's highest court recently ruled that many of the 218 coal licenses issued to companies since 1993 were awarded illegally.

In July India's government mooted plans to let state-run Coal India (NSE:COALINDIA), the world's largest producer of thermal coal, to increase imports and pool it with domestic supply after it was reported that close to a half of the country's coal power plants only have enough stocks to last a week.

Wall Street Daily reports, research by Macquarie Bank estimates India's imports could rise by and additional 38 million tonnes. According to a separate study the expected rise in imports would absorb nearly 90% of the seaborne coal surplus this year.

Image by LHOON