The 2015 Energy Outlook Series: Coal

Coal has had a tumultuous 12 months but will 2015 be any better?

Coal prices declined steadily in the first months of 2014 in response to a combination of in-creased supply and lower import demand from China.

Australian benchmark contract prices for high-quality metallurgical coal settled at $US120 in the September quarter, a price that left many coal operations unprofitable.

Thermal coal fared even worse, with Newcastle free on board spot prices averaging US$73 a tonne in the first eight months of 2014, down 16 per cent year on year.

The price glut meant something had to give, and 2014 was the year the coal industry decided to restructure its workforce leading to massive job cuts.

Australian Mining estimates that more than 2500 jobs in the coal sector were cut as mining companies either downsized their operations or shut them down completely.

The Integra coal complex in the Hunter Valley was an early victim of coal's fall from grace, as Vale announced in May that it would close the operation, taking 500 jobs with it.

Isaac Plains in Central Queensland also went into care and maintenance, with 300 jobs cut.

And in news that came as a shock to many, Glencore decided to close its coal operations for three weeks over Christmas.

The company said the move was a "considered management decision given the current over-supply situation".

Glencore said this will reduce the need to push incremental sales in the weak commodity price environment.

And herein lies the problem with the coal price and its chance of recovering much-needed ground in 2015.

The Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) said Australia exported 181 million tonnes of metallurgical coal in 2013-14, with this expected to increase to 185 million tonnes in 2014-15.

While thermal coal exports are tipped to top 196 million tonnes in 2014-15.

However it's the values that are important. Metallurgical coal is expected to remain steady at around $23.2 billion.

Thermal coal's value is expected to decline by 9 per cent to $15.1 billion.

This is because there is an oversupply of both products on the world market, and countries like China are not willing to pay close to previous highs of $180 a tonne.

"Globally, production over-took demand in 2012-13, resulting in a strong drop-off in the world prices for steaming and coking coal," IBISWorld explained.

Making matters worse for miners in Australia is the supply coming online from other competitors such as Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa.

At the same time, rising natural gas production in the United States means thermal coal will be diverted from domestic American markets, where it is used as an energy source, to export destinations.

This will all work to keep a lid on prices, especially if China can get a handle on its production capacity and costs.

IBISWorld said this means the focus on cost structures will continue, with wages and employment to come under pressure as the capital-intensive industry seeks additional productivity gains.

It said employment is expected to decline at a compound annual rate of 3.9 per cent over the next five years as other areas of the industry's cost structure are less flexible.

Companies are also assessing their place in the market, the consultant firm said, with many mine stakes thought to be on the market and assets like Clermont coal mine in Queensland.

However, despite the gloom Australian producers who can restrain their costs are expected to remain competitive in the global market as the local currency continues to weaken against the U.S dollar.

BREE said a rapid price rise in coking coal prices was unlikely, and forecast the commodity to decline by 2.6 per cent to an average US$123 a tonne in 2015.

But there is an upside.

From 2016, the market balance is expected to tighten as China's real estate sector begins to recover and a prolonged period of oversupply comes to an end through the closure of high-cost operations. The metallurgical coal contract price is projected to rise modestly to US$130 a tonne (in 2014 dollar terms) by 2019.

However thermal coal is expected to remain weak and decline by 6 per cent to settle at US$77 in 2015.

But exports of steaming coal to key markets in Asia are expected to expand over the next few years as new coal-fired power stations come onstream.

BREE said from 2016 the market balance is expected to tighten as more mines close and availability tightens.

This will result in contract prices rising to US$86 a tonne by 2019.

While the price rises are not dramatic, and are nowhere near the highs seen at the peak of the boom, they will work to ease a little pressure for mining companies.

Especially the ones making hard decisions now on how to remain viable until the upshot comes to fruition. 

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.