Features Australia

Coal is bad

Hand over the money

Judith Sloan

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Judith Sloan

2 September 2022

11:00 PM

He spoke too soon. It’s always a gamble going out on a limb. But when Richard Marles, then a Labor shadow minister, spoke in 2019 about the (temporary) collapse of the world market for thermal coal he didn’t have to add that ‘at one level that’s a good thing’.

Shane Wright, the economics writer who pops up in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, also opted for a florid description: ‘coal is like candlesticks’. According to him, ‘the Candle Makers’ Union of old was wont to say 150 years ago: the light bulbs, they’ll never catch on’. So droll (and inaccurate) of him to predict the demise of coal in this way.

Now you could argue that Wright doesn’t count and Marles only a little bit, but Treasury also has it in for coal. Take the assumption from this year’s Budget delivered at the end of March – less than six months ago – that the price of thermal coal (used to generate electricity) would decline from $US320 per tonne to $US60 per tonne by the end of the September quarter 2022. (It’s currently trading close to $US400.)

You might think I have made a mistake typing these numbers. But no, in the span of just over a half a year, the Treasury expected the global price of thermal coal to fall by nearly three-quarters notwithstanding other predictions contained in the Budget that the outlook for the global economy was fairly rosy. (Precipitous declines in other commodity prices, apart from oil, were also anticipated.)

This was despite the fact that the war in the Ukraine was in full swing, the price of natural gas in Europe was skyrocketing (it had actually risen sharply before the war) and Europe was being forced to turn back to coal to maintain its output of electricity. Don’t Treasury officials read the international press? Or maybe they stopped reading after the glorious victory of the Glasgow Cop 26 and its faux commitments from some countries to get out of coal, including Germany.

There is surely an irony that Germany is now ramping up its coal-fired electricity generation – using brown coal, indeed – after it became clear that the flow of cheap natural gas from Russia could no longer be assured. The government has even reluctantly agreed to extend the lives of the last three remaining nuclear plants. That’s right, renewable energy doesn’t really cut it when a crisis emerges.  Other countries to turn back to coal include Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK.

Actually, it seems a lifetime ago when the climate-fest was held in Glasgow. It was only last November and Boris was still at the helm. He was flitting back and forwards to convince some uncertain world leaders of the need to sign up for the net-zero journey – sadly, including our own prime minister, Scott Morrison. (It’s not clear how many other ministerial positions he also held at the time.)

As it turned out, it was probably the peak of climate fear-mongering, with all the likely urgers there to make themselves look important and/or to snaffle more government largesse. Our own Twiggy Forrest had his own stand providing free bumf about green hydrogen to anyone who walked by.  Even Greta turned up after a long train ride, although her impact is clearly waning.

One of the biggest points of contention at the conference was the call to phase out coal, which the ‘greenest’ countries supported, or phase down, a position supported by Australia, India and even the US. Rather than go away without any ‘consensus’, the final decision was unanimous agreement that (unabated) coal should be phased down and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies should be removed.

What a joke those days of verbal wrangling turned out to be! Thermal coal is now at historically high prices; metallurgical coal is even being used to generate electricity with its price sometimes lower than that of thermal coal – unheard of; and global demand for thermal coal is expected to be higher next year than this year. Demand is particularly strong in China and India.

The International Energy Agency, well-known for its lop-sided bias towards anything renewable and away from coal, has had to admit that its predictions of the early demise of coal as a source of energy have been completely wrong. The term ‘stranded asset’ is unsurprisingly absent from its more recent reports.

We have also seen the predictions of the ESG crowd go pear-shaped as coal companies announce record profits and dividends. When mining giant Anglo American decided to peel off its thermal coal division into a separate company, Thungela Resources, there were green-tinged market analysts who estimated the value of the new company at zero and firmly told shareholders to sell. The price of Thungela Resources has risen by close to 600 per cent since listing and its dividend yield is 25 per cent!

Then there’s the story of BHP exiting thermal coal – that company is particularly in thrall to the ESG crowd – only to be outwitted by the cunning executives at Glencore. By taking the price risk during the period during which the transaction was being completed, Glencore as the buyer was able to fully pay for the purchase!

One of the most alarming aspects of these recent developments is the failure of the news to reach so many of our politicians, including those who are actually in power. The state energy ministers (they are right down the political food chain) have decided that coal can have no role in ensuring the stability of the electricity grid in the future. Federal Climate Change Minister, Chris Bowen, simply doles out favours to green rent-seekers without understanding the full implications. But here’s the thing: there is breathless hypocrisy surrounding the behaviour of these politicians. The fact is that coal is propping up both the federal budget and the budgets of Queensland and New South Wales, in particular. In just the few months between this year’s budget and the end of the financial year, the bottom line of the federal budget was better by $25 billion because of higher commodity prices. The Queensland budgetary position would be dire were it not for coal royalties.

Evidently, it’s fine to bite the hand that feeds you if you are an environmentally concerned politician. No one in the mainstream media will pick you up, particularly those journalists who think that coal and candlesticks are the same.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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