Coal prices soar as Debbie hits supply

Prashant Mehra
(Australian Associated Press)

Coal prices are soaring as the widespread impact of Cyclone Debbie on Queensland’s mining industry becomes clearer.

Metallurgical coal futures in China jumped more than seven per cent to $A255 a tonne in early trade on Wednesday, their highest level since December 2016.

Singapore-listed futures for Australian premium coking coal, used in steelmaking, have surged 68 per cent in the last three days to $A297 a tonne.

The tropical cyclone caused severe flooding and landslides, and forced the closure of many ports, railways and mines.

BHP Billiton has declared ‘force majeure’ for all coal deliveries from its mines in the Bowen Basin, becoming the fourth miner in the region to invoke the commercial term that implies an inability to fulfil its obligations because of outside forces.

Aurizon, Australia’s largest rail freight operator, expects it will take weeks to get its key rail lines – used for transporting coal to export terminals in the region – running again.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, with Queensland alone accounting for more than half of the world’s seaborne coking coal supplies.

Commonwealth Bank mining and energy commodities strategist Vivek Dhar estimates between 13 and 17 million tonnes of seaborne coking coal supply – four to six per cent of global exports – may be lost because of disruptions from the cyclone.

UBS analysts said roughly 15 million tonnes of coal shipments would be out of the market, a shock that could lift spot prices by more than $US100 a tonne.

“Our initial view that the biggest risk to coal supply would come from mine pit inundation rather than infrastructure damage appears incorrect,” UBS analysts said earlier this week.

“The damage to rail networks is worse than we had expected.”

ANZ said June quarter export volumes and earnings will be hit, and there is no guarantee volumes could be made up during the rest of the year.

“Given infrastructure was already a bottleneck in the system, the ability to catch up over the coming months when the rail network is repaired could also be restricted,” ANZ analysts said.

“With a significant amount of the world’s premium hard coking coal now marooned onsite, prices are likely to continue to push higher.”

Coal miners whose operations were not impacted by cyclone Debbie appear to have emerged as winners in the short term.

Shares in Whitehaven Coal, which operates in NSW, have jumped nearly 20 per cent in the past week, while shares in South32, which also has operations in NSW, have lifted by more than 10 per cent.


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