Is coal’s decline permanent?
Oil wasn’t the only natural resource that ended 2014 with falling prices, but the question for coal is whether its problems are cyclical, or if it has become an unwanted commodity, leaving long-term prices in a slow spiral towards a bituminous bottom.
As this Reuters graphic shows, coal hit a high of $218 per metric tonne in July of 2008 during the energy “crisis” that wound up being a hiccup. The Great Recession brought oil and coal prices back to earth, but while oil rebounded steadily from the beginning of 2009 only to fall recently, coal peaked again in April of 2011 and has slowly fallen since then.
Of course, this is problematic for the coal industry, partially because some factors that should have driven demand didn’t translate to price increases. After the Fukushima nuclear accident Japan focused on coal as a safer fuel, and Chinese use of coal has also sharply increased. According the the U.S. Energy Information Agency, in 2003 China imported 12,235 short tons of coal, but by 2012 that number had exploded to 318,465 tons; over the same period China’s coal exports have dropped from 119,876 to just 15,184.
Last October, China introduced an import tariff, while last month it removed an export tariff, both in an effort to even out the recent imbalance, and the global coal trade has grown over the past few years, but as Fayen Wong and Polly Yam wrote for Reuters last month, nearly 70 percent of China’s miners are losing money and more than half to owe wages. The Australian coal industry is running out of costs to cut, and in the U.S., stringency of EPA regulations are expected to further drive down prices. All told, the factors and forces working against coal make a good argument that its time may be fading to black.