A global race to secure coal sparked by fears of a shortfall in supply from Russia, one of the biggest producers, has sent prices to levels never seen before.
The rush by utilities in Europe, which import more thermal coal from Russia than any other country, along with consumers in Japan, South Korea and China is pressuring a market already in tight balance after outages and other curbs this year at major production hubs.
Newcastle futures, the benchmark for top consuming region Asia, soared 46% to a record of $446 a ton Wednesday, the highest level in data back to 2008, according to ICE Futures Europe. That added to startling recent gains for European contracts, and advances for prices in Indonesia and China.
“Buyers in markets including Europe, Japan, South Korea, and China are scrambling to address their exposure to Russian supply” as a result of the war in Ukraine, Wood Mackenzie Ltd. said in a Thursday note. Russia accounted for almost 18% of global coal exports in 2020, according to BP.
Global commodities markets have been convulsed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last week, as traders rush to secure alternative supplies of fuels and raw materials even without specific sanctions in place covering energy. Oil has extended a rally above $110 a barrel, while natural gas has also added to recent gains.
Coal consumers are grappling with concerns that Russian cargoes won’t be delivered because of curbs on some vessels unloading at European ports or disruption to rail lines, and the impact of restrictions on banks or other entities that could prevent trade with their usual suppliers.
Producers of the fuel surged Thursday. Whitehaven Coal, a supplier to markets including Japan and South Korea, rose 11% in Sydney to the highest since May 2019, while Coal India Ltd. jumped as much as 7% in Mumbai to the highest since October.
Whitehaven has had inbound inquires from Poland and coal “tenders seem to be excluding Russian supply, which will further tighten the market,” the producer said in a statement.
Coronado Global Resources Inc., which operates metallurgical coal mines in Australia and the U.S., said it had seen an increase in approaches from European buyers, while New Hope Corp. has been contacted by purchasers who traditionally rely on Russia.
Officials in Australia, the world’s biggest thermal coal shipper after Indonesia, are helping connect producers to markets outside usual demand hubs, the country’s Resources Minister Keith Pitt said in a statement.
Global power plants or steel mills configured to use Russia’s high quality raw materials will face a challenge to find suitable substitutes with global demand already elevated, Wood Mackenzie said in its note.
Europe, Japan and South Korea together imported about 90 million tons of thermal coal and 25 million tons of metallurgical coal from Russia last year. The materials “cannot conceivably be replaced in the currently tight global supply market,” the research company said.
In China, the top coal consumer and producer, demand from power plants and heavy industry has increased since the Lunar New Year holiday, causing inventories to decline, according to the China Coal Transportation and Distribution Association. Importers now face more competition to procure fuel from their main foreign supplier, Indonesia.
China’s benchmark thermal coal futures are up about 15% this week, while Indonesian coal futures traded in Singapore rose above $100 a ton on Wednesday, the highest since October.