China is considering accepting some stranded Australian coal cargoes, an effort that would help ease a logjam of vessels that have stacked up off its coast for months.
The shipments that could be cleared are those that arrived before a ban on Australian coal went into effect, said a person familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified as the discussions are private.
Deliberations are at an initial stage and any decision would need the approval of more senior Chinese leaders, the person said. The broader prohibition on Australian coal remains in place, and ideally, the cargoes would be resold to buyers in other countries, the person said.
China’s customs administration didn’t immediately respond to a fax seeking comment.
The opaque nature of the Australian ban, which has never been publicly acknowledged by Beijing, makes pinpointing its start date difficult. The government was rumored to have ordered its five biggest utilities to halt Australian purchases as early as May, while in October, power stations and steel mills were told to stop using Australian coal.
In November, Beijing ordered traders to halt purchases of a raft of the country’s commodities, including coal. Relations between the two trading partners have deteriorated since Huawei Technologies Co. was barred from building Australia’s 5G network in 2018.
China has strengthened its safety and environmental protection checks on coal imports from Australia to defend the interests of Chinese companies, consumers and the environment, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said when asked about the status of the stranded cargoes during a press briefing in Beijing on Friday. But he added that the measures weren’t aimed at any specific country or product.
Most of the stranded coal is the type used to make steel, while a smaller portion is used for power generation, according to data intelligence firm Kpler. About 70 ships are waiting to discharge according to shipping data compiled by Bloomberg.
Some shipowners and charterers are pushing for the cargo owners to allow them to divert to foreign ports to relieve an estimated 1,400 mariners who remain trapped on the ships. Humanitarian concerns have deepened as the standoff lengthens: a seafarer on the Anastasia stranded off China’s coast attempted suicide, Seatrade Maritime News reported Jan. 6.
The Jag Anand vessel, which arrived to China in June, is en route to Japan to relieve its crew, according to Cargill Inc., which is the vessel’s original charterer. Some of the seafarers on the vessel have been working about 20 months without a break, according to the National Union of Seafarers of India.
China has had to contend with record prices for both types of coal this winter. The worst winter freeze in decades has driven heating demand to an all-time high, and thrown the country’s energy markets into tumult. At the same time, China’s steel mills are churning out record quantities to feed a state-funded infrastructure boom to rescue the economy after the ravages of the pandemic.
Coking coal for May on the Dalian Commodity Exchange pared gains to close up 3.7%, after earlier rising as much as 6%.
China’s coal imports from all countries surged to record levels in December, lifting the annual total for coal above 300 million tons to its highest since 2013. In past years, Australia has been the country’s second-biggest supplier after Indonesia.
China’s authorities are also surveying the stranded carriers to identify shipowners, crew nationalities, and end users of the coal, the person said.
(By Aaron Clark, with assistance from Kevin Varley, Alfred Cang, Winnie Zhu, Dan Murtaugh, Colum Murphy and Stephen Stapczynski)