China lets in most of the Australian coal stranded at its ports

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Most of the Australian coal used by steelmakers that was being held at Chinese ports in the wake of Beijing’s import ban has now been cleared, according to local research firm Fengkuang Coal Logistics, although there’s no sign that the halt on new shipments will be lifted.

Customs data for the final quarter of last year show 6.2 million tons of Australian coking coal were finally allowed in, along with another 5.5 million tons of thermal coal that was destined for power plants from China’s former trading partner for the fossil fuel.

It’s unclear how much coal in total was stranded after Beijing halted Australian imports near the end of 2020 as political ties with Canberra soured. Still, the customs figures are close to industry estimates of the amount of coal that was in limbo, and it’s highly likely in any case that China’s power crisis in the autumn would have soaked up most of the thermal coal also being held at its ports.

China’s customs administration didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

But that’s not quite the end to a saga that at its most dramatic saw dozens of carriers stacked for months off the Chinese coast, trapped between the authorities who wouldn’t let them unload and buyers who wouldn’t let them leave. The upshot is that the ban on Australian coal has created some unlikely winners. 

China doesn’t produce enough of the higher-grade coking coal and was for a long time reliant on Australian mines. But pandemic controls have choked the flow of shipments from neighboring Mongolia, another top supplier, leaving exporters in the U.S. and Canada — hardly nations favored by Beijing — to pick up the slack. 

Even as China’s total coking coal purchases dropped by about a quarter to 55 million tons last year, the amount arriving from the U.S. grew nearly 10 times to account for almost 20% of China’s imports, according to Fengkuang. Meanwhile, Canadian shipments doubled to nearly the same portion.

Whether the ban on Australian fuel continues, and the impact of the pandemic on Mongolian supplies, mean that “the coking coal import market in 2022 remains highly uncertain,” Fengkuang said. 

China’s needs this year will depend on demand from the steel industry, which in turn will be shaped by whether Beijing continues to insist on lower production to meet its carbon targets, and the degree to which infrastructure spending will be used to buttress flagging economic growth.

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