2020 to be pivotal for coal miners — report

Coal mining. (Image from Pixabay)

After a Jekyll and Hyde year in 2019, and a decade characterised by China’s disruption of the met coal trade, participants can be forgiven for being sick of change. But research firm Wood Mackenzie believes a shift toward consistency and stability is probably too much to ask for in 2020 as China continues to play powerbroker over the seaborne market and spot pricing. 

Woodmac says 2020 is likely to be a pivotal year for those miners who struggled through the second half of 2019.

Under the global microscope, coal suppliers looking to grow will continue to face creeping resistance, grappling with an unfriendly permitting environment, and a climate-induced shift in capital. But opportunities for growth will still exist this year, and we expect the emergence of some potentially game-changing technological developments to keep the market particularly interesting. 

China crude steel production, hot metal, coke and coking coal demand 

If 2019 taught us anything about the inner workings of Chinese markets and policy, it is that controlling imports to a finite number is almost impossible. The 2019 import quota policy failed to suppress trade volumes. Coal imports breached 2018 levels by 11% as demand, lower prices, and trader risk appetite pushed imports higher, says the firm.  

For 2020, Woodmac assumes a repeat from 2019 with soft targets being just that – targets. With record steel production and peak hot metal demand forecast in 2020, Chinese coal imports will reach similar levels as 2019 – pushing coal up against any import restrictions.

Coal suppliers looking to grow will continue to face creeping resistance, grappling with an unfriendly permitting environment, and a climate-induced shift in capital

Imported coals from Australia, unofficially, faced increased customs scrutiny with clearances regularly pushing over 40 days. Woodmac anticipates the same treatment in 2020. The expectation is Chinese officials will continue this practice in an effort to balance domestic and import supply over the year. Despite these efforts, the large Chinese coastal mills require access to premium Australian HCC and will continue to trade heavily in 2020. Seaborne metallurgical coal traders can’t discount that China will remain a major source of price volatility with the various market instruments at its disposal. 

As the year progresses and quotas shrink, be on the lookout for ports actively beginning to restrict imports. Woodmac says the last quarter should see China tightening imports despite record steel production, but impromptu limits will probably occur throughout the year. The demand will be there although nothing spooks coal traders more than not being able to complete a transaction in a timely fashion.

The situation in Q4 2020 will likely repeat 2019 as buyers will drive pricing necessary to incentivise trades on potentially riskier transactions. Expect import restrictions to suppress international spot pricing especially as the year comes to an end. 

Supply growth to become more challenging

Like all miners, metallurgical coal producers face mounting pressure as the global lens continues to focus sharper on the industry. The spectre of new external threats highlighted by recent Australian bushfires, and growing water stress, will add to the challenges for those trying to bring new supply to market, Woodmac asserts. The risk of direct impacts from drought and fire on operating mines has also increased, although we expect mitigation measures to successfully minimize potential disruption. Water levels in southern Bowen basin dams are an area to watch, starting the year at very low levels, and placing greater pressure on groundwater sources. 

Vale hit the pause button at its Moatize HCC mine operations in late 2019, and they face a tough decision at an important operation. The company will use the first two quarters of 2020 to revamp the mine and coal processing circuit in a bid to increase flailing production and diminished coal quality. Pay attention to Vale as they look to bring the mine fully back on-line in the second half of 2020. The loss of Moatize tonnes will have considerable consequences for the premium hard coking coal market. 

Australian mine safety will be in the spotlight in 2020 as 2019 saw a rash of mine fatalities rock the industry – nine workers across the mining industry with five related to coal mines. Not even a month into the new year, a Queensland miner lost his life at the Curragh coal mine. Calls for increased regulations have not gone unheard. The Queensland government is set to introduce legislation in 2020 to make mining industrial manslaughter an offence. The government is near passing legislation to establish an independent resources health and safety authority. 

Projects face heightened environmental, social and governance (ESG) expectations from all facets of society including investors. Environmental review delays are the new norm for mine applications as regulators ratchet up their scrutiny. Don’t be surprised if some large projects don’t meet their preferred milestones this year.

And expect approval conditions to continue to tighten, as we saw last year in Australia, where development consent was given for the United Wambo mine on the condition that coal was sold only to countries that were signatories to the Paris climate agreement. Metallurgical coal projects looking for major approvals this year include Riversdale Resources’ Grassy Mountain, Olive Downs and Futura’s Wilton and Fairhill. 

World’s first widescale autonomous haulage fleet

In a first for the coal industry and a sign of the future, BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) will introduce an autonomous haulage fleet at its Goonyella Riverside operation. The Queensland operation will see a total of 86 trucks commissioned over the next two years with the first set due in the first half of 2020. According to BMA, beyond safety, the autonomous fleet is expected to deliver more consistent cycle times while increasing haulage hours. 

All eyes in the mining world will be on the operation to leverage learnings and improvements as other companies consider the leap into the driver-less world. Woodmac expects the new fleet could offer up to 15-20% haulage savings over a traditional haulage fleet. 

While new to coal, Komatsu has close to 150 trucks operating autonomously in 9 mine sites. Woodmac expects that Komatsu has “skin in the game” and will be keen to see their product succeed at BMA’s operation with the goal for future installs. Stay tuned to BMA as they roll out their new driver-less fleet in 2020. 

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