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The Long-Term Promise of Seaborne Thermal Coal

By Peter Staas on June 24, 2011

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In the wake of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region, The Energy Strategist has focused primarily on the disaster’s implications for nuclear power and international markets for liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Shares of uranium producers sold off dramatically in the aftermath of the quake, while Germany’s decided to close permanently eight of its nuclear reactors and work toward decommissioning the remaining nine by 2022.

The latter announcement dominated the headlines for some time and prompted spirited debates about the prudence of such a decision: Whereas some lauded the country’s ongoing commitment to alternative energy, others rightly questioned how Germany would replace this lost baseload power and whether the country’s increased reliance on imported electricity heightens the risk of blackouts.

But neither Germany nor Switzerland’s bold decisions to phase out their nuclear power plants changes the fundamental drivers of uranium prices or the global nuclear renaissance. Emerging markets such as China, Russia and India–not the developed world–remain committed to nuclear power as a relatively inexpensive and reliable source of baseload power.

Meanwhile, supply-demand conditions in international LNG markets have tightened considerably since the earthquake hit Japan. With the country’s nuclear power plants operating at a capacity factor of only 40.9 percent in May because of plant closures, Japanese power producers have stepped up their purchases of LNG cargoes as natural gas-fired facilities attempt to bridge the gap.

Source: Bloomberg

For example, Chubu Electric Power (Tokyo: 9502) is expected to increase its LNG purchases by 38 percent over the 12 months ended March 31 to limit power shortages while it shores up its Hamaoka nuclear power plant, one of three that safety inspections identified as vulnerable to earthquake damage. The company also inked a deal with LNG giant BG Group (LSE: BG/, OTC: BRGYY) to purchase 121 LNG cargoes from 2014 to 2035.

This sudden uptick in demand has elevated LNG prices in Japan (see graph below) and throughout Asia.

Source: Bloomberg

The long-term picture for international LNG prices looks equally bright. UK demand should continue to increase as production from its North Sea reserves continues to decrease, while many countries in Continental Europe have reduced natural purchases from Russia to the lowest levels allowable under contract and stepped up LNG imports. Both of these trends should continue over the long term.

Meanwhile, Germany likely will look to natural-gas fired power plants to offset the closure of its nuclear power plants, and as I pointed out in Energy Investing: The Global LNG Market, Chinese imports of LNG will continue to increase as planned import facilities come online over the next few years.

Although we’ve covered investment opportunities in nuclear power and LNG in depth in The Energy Strategist, we haven’t discussed how the earthquake that hit Japan in early March has affected the price of Australian thermal coal exports.

The devastating earthquake forced operators to close 13 ports in northeastern Japan, including several unloading points for imported coal. Moreover, damage incurred from the earthquake forced the closure of about 10 percent of the Japan’s coal-fired plants, forcing some utilities to invoke force majeure on supply contracts with Australian exporters.

But this near-term weakness in the market for Australian thermal coal will prove temporary. Chinese and South Korean buyers already have stepped in to pick up some of the slack.

Meanwhile, Australian coal industry’s long-term growth story remains intact.

Although concerns about air quality and carbon emissions standards will limit the construction of coal-fired power plants in the developed world, Asia’s energy-hungry emerging markets have latched onto coal-powered generation as an important part of their energy mix.

In fact, current estimates suggest that coal-fired power capacity will be the single largest source of incremental generation capacity globally from 2008 to 2020, accounting for an additional 3,516 terrawatt-hours, compared to 1,604 terrawatt-hours for natural gas and a mere 107 terrawatt-hours for solar power. Much of this growth will occur in China, India and other Asian markets. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2010 forecasts that China, India and Indonesia will account for 90 percent of the growth in global coal demand through 2035.

As the quintessential emerging market, China’s appetite for coal receives a lot of attention from investors and commentators.

But India lacks sufficient domestic coal reserves to keep its plants humming–a huge opportunity for coal producers. National coal company Coal India reportedly is pursuing long-term supply agreements with five companies from the US, South Africa and Australia. Coal India is also likely to purchase additional overseas assets; at present, the company’s only international holding is a coal mine in Mozambique that will be operational in two years.

As a result of this demand, market participants expect seaborne thermal coal supply to fall 50 to 75 million metric tons short of demand 2015. Thermal coal prices will need increase to levels that incentivize producers in Australia and Indonesia to produce more coal for export.

To learn about Elliott Gue’s top nuclear power, LNG and coal plays, sign up for a free trial of The Energy Strategist.

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