While there are still a lot of coal fetishists in business and politics — Matt Canavan and his LNP cronies, the ALP’s Joel Fitzgibbon, the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Liberal donors like Trevor St Baker — they seem oblivious to the gathering forces that present a major threat to the coal industry, and particularly thermal coal.
BHP is just the latest example, this week confirming it wants out of all coal except its (relatively) high value metallurgical coal operations in Queensland’s Bowen Basin that it owns with Mitsubishi. The rest — its weaker metallurgical mines in the Mitsui Coal joint venture, plus its Hunter Valley thermal coal operations and a big mine in Colombia — are on the market.
The CFMEU accuses BHP and Mitsui of running down working conditions at the mines, and says it “welcomes new owners” who might restore them. But BHP isn’t alone. US miner Peabody — which went into and out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US in 2017-18 and still faces an uncertain future — is cutting between 50 and 150 staff of its Wambo underground mine in the Hunter Valley.
The Hunter Valley is where Glencore, the world’s biggest thermal coal exporter, recently shut its mines for at least two weeks, along with two mines in Queensland. Glencore’s Rolleston mine in Queensland was shut for two weeks in June.
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Far from getting a new mining company that will improve conditions, the CFMEU’s mining division might get knocked down in the rush to the exits as major companies flee low value coal. BHP doesn’t think thermal and low value coking coal has a place in modern business. Only high value coking coal remains attractive. Last year, South32 — spun off from BHP in 2015 — dumped its South African thermal coal mines in favour of its NSW hard coking coal export mines.
Thermal coal’s share of power generation is collapsing in major markets. The Trump administration’s Energy Information Administration predicts “coal’s forecast share of electricity generation falls from 24% in 2019 to 18% in 2020 and then increases to 21% in 2021. Electricity generation from renewable energy sources rises from 17% in 2019 to 20% in 2020 and to 22% in 2021 … nuclear share of generation averages about 21% in 2020 and will be slightly less than 21% by 2021…”. It predicts gas will reach a 41% share this year, the highest ever, but that will fall to 36% next year.
Peabody has written down the value of its huge North Antelope thermal coal mine in Wyoming — which accounts for 12% of all US coal production — by US$1.4 billion. Output from the huge mine is railed across the midwest and south for power generation, but fewer companies are buying it as gas, solar and wind farms replace coal. One hundred coal fired power stations have closed across the US in the past decade, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The pandemic has merely reinforced that trend. The six months to June saw US coal output cut by 18% as demand slumped. But it’s the steady march of renewables that is making coal obsolete. Texas, of all places, is now the biggest wind farm state in the US.
Remember, all that’s happening in a country where Donald Trump promised to revive the coal mining industry. Total US coal mining employment fell to just 50,000 people before the pandemic struck.
This is the problem for the coal fetishists on both sides of politics (and media outlets like The Australian, which portray the issue as some sort of existential threat to Labor). Thermal coal has no future as a power source, regardless of how much governments pander to climate denialists. Even the Morrison government has reluctantly switched the focus of its climate denialism to slightly less carbon-intensive gas.
Only high-quality metallurgical coal has a future. About the only sensible policy for supporting thermal coal is to employ one lot of miners to dig it up and another lot to bury it again. At least that will keep CFMEU members in jobs.