LAUNCESTON, Australia: Seaborne coal has become a quiet winner among energy commodities, lacking the attention of higher-profile crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG), but enjoying strong gains amid rising demand.
Both thermal coal, used in power plants, and coking coal, used to make steel, have rallied strongly in recent months. And in both cases the driver has largely been China, the world's biggest producer, importer and consumer of the fuel.
There are two elements to China's influence on seaborne coal markets in Asia; robust demand as the Chinese economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic; and Beijing's policy choice to ban imports from Australia.
Both elements are reflected in the prices, with lower-quality thermal coal from Indonesia being the biggest beneficiary.
The weekly index for Indonesian coal with an energy value of 4,200 kilocalories per kilogram (kcal/kg), as assessed by commodity price reporting agency Argus, has surged nearly three-quarters from its 2021 low of $36.81 a tonne to $63.98 in the week to July 2.
There is a demand-pull element helping to boost prices of Indonesian coal, with data from commodity analysts Kpler showing China imported 18.36 million tonnes from the world's largest shipper of thermal coal in June.
This was the second-biggest monthly volume China has imported from Indonesia according to Kpler records going back to January 2017, eclipsed only by last December's 25.64 million tonnes.
Refinitiv, which like Kpler tracks vessel movements, has China's imports from Indonesia somewhat lower in June at 14.96 million tonnes. But the two services agree that this was the second-highest month on record, with Refinitiv data going back to January 2015.
Both agree that China's imports from Australia have dwindled to near zero from levels around 7-8 million tonnes per month that prevailed up until Beijing's unofficial ban was imposed in the middle of last year.
China's total coal imports from all countries in June were 31.55 million tonnes, according to Kpler, and 25.21 million according to Refinitiv.
But while Australia, the second-biggest exporter of thermal coal and the biggest of coking coal, may have lost the China market, it has been able to find alternatives and the price of its coals have also been rising strongly.
Benchmark high-grade thermal coal with an energy value of 6,000 kcal/kg at the port of Newcastle ended last week at $135.63 a tonne, the highest in 10 years, and up by more than half in just the past two months.
This grade of coal is mainly bought by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which rank behind China and India as Asia's top importers of coal.
Those three countries imported 14.77 million tonnes of all types of coal from Australia in June, according to Kpler, down from May's 17.05 million, but up strongly from 12.46 million in June 2020.
But the real saviour for Australian coal has been India, which imported a record 7.52 million tonnes of all grades in June, up from 6.61 million in May and just 2.04 million in June 2020.
India tends to buy intermediate grade thermal coal from Australia, which sells at a substantial discount to the 6,000 kcal/kg fuel.
Argus assessed 5,500 kcal/kg coal at Newcastle at $78.29 a tonne on July 2. While this grade has doubled from its 2020 lows, it is still some 42% cheaper than the higher-quality fuel popular with North Asian buyers.
Australia's coal export volumes have largely recovered from the initial hit caused by the China ban and the loss of demand from the coronavirus pandemic. Kpler assessed June shipments at 31.37 million tonnes of all grades, up from 28.74 million in May and the 27.13 million from November, which was the weakest month in 2020.
Overall, it's clear China's stamp is all over the current rally in coal prices: its strong demand is boosting Indonesian coal, and its ban on imports from Australia is forcing a re-alignment of trade flows in Asia.