PESD Working Paper #101 on Australia's black coal industry featured in Platts Coal Trader International


Australia coal train Lars Plougmann Flickr headliner
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Lars Plougmann/Flickr

Platts Coal Trader International
Vol. 11, Issue 67, Pages 5-6

Australia faces serious challenges over the next 20 years in maintaining its hard-won place as a leading coal exporting country and capturing new market share, according to a research paper published by Stanford University's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development April 5.

Following earlier papers on China, Indonesia and South Africa's coal industries, the latest PESD paper, entitled Australia's Black Coal Industry: Past Achievements and Future Challenges, has been written by coal industry expert Bart Lucarelli.

The paper sketches the development of Australia's export coal industry, from its shaky start in the aftermath of the Second World War amid a glut of cheap oil, to the "phenomenal success story" of today.  The renaissance of Australia's coal industry was assisted by the discovery of vast deposits of high-quality coking coal and thermal coal in Queensland's Bowen Basin and the

Hunter Valley of New South Wales respectively, along with new mining technologies and the economic expansions of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Lucarelli said.

During the Australian coal industry's competitive phase - 1987 to 2003 - export coal prices were relatively stable, but the growth rate of Australia's coal industry slowed as Indonesia became a significant coal exporter.  Since 2003, Australia's coal industry has been in a "volatile price phase," as export coking and thermal coal prices have soared to record highs with the entry of China and latterly India into the international seaborne market, while weather events have affected supplies from coal exporting countries.

Looking to the next 20 years, Lucarelli forecasts serious challenges to the preeminence of Australia's export coal industry in the shape of infrastructure constraints, regulatory risks and under-investment in railways and ports by government-owned companies.  "The most pressing and immediate technical challenge to the black coal industry of Australia is the shortage of rail and port infrastructure to support its further growth," said Lucarelli in the research paper.

‘Chronic infrastructure shortages' Governments in Queensland and New South Wales have proposed projects for expanding their rail and port networks to support a significant increase in Australian coal exports, which are forecast to grow to 540 million mt by 2020 from 240 million mt in 2010.  "Part of the reason that chronic infrastructure shortages are likely to persist has to do with the type of technology being implemented - large rail and fixed land port systems," Lucarelli explained.  Large port and rail projects are required for economies of scale, but involve long lead times, high upfront costs and complex regulatory clearances. 

"A second reason for the chronic shortage of infrastructure has been the reliance on state-owned entities to make the necessary investments in the rail and port systems," Lucarelli said. Government-owned rail and port companies tend to be less nimble and entrepreneurial in their decision-making than the private sector, though some port and rail companies have been privatized recently - most notably Queenslandbased rail company QR National and the port of Brisbane.  Regulatory uncertainty stemming from the Australian government's stop-start policy on curbing carbon emissions and its proposed Mineral Resource Rent Tax on coal-mining profits are additional factors clouding the expansion of Australia's coal industry.  "Potential coal mining projects most at risk due to regulatory uncertainty are the massive new steam coal projects planned for the Galilee, Gunnedah and Surat basins," Lucarelli said.  Illustrating the potential for expansion within Australia's coal industry, Lucarelli said that if only two of the advancedstage projects in the Surat Basin in Queensland started production on schedule, they could add 110 million mt/year of thermal coal exports by 2015.  This is almost as much thermal coal as Australia exported for the whole of 2008, at 115 million mt.