Readers who attended Sunday School will remember the story of miracle of the loaves and fishes, performed by Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. A couple of fish and a few loaves of bread proved sufficient to feed a multitude.
Something similar appears to be happening in the Galilee Basin, where large, but economically marginal, coal mines are supposed to produce massive wealth for everyone. The Courier-Mail has a report of a court case in which the Alpha mine, owned by GVK Hancock, is claimed to be capable of generating $44 billion in royalties. The royalty rate in Queensland is 10 per cent for coal prices below $100/tonne (prices above that level will almost certainly never be seen again). At the current price of around $65/tonne, that’s $6.50/tonne. Alpha claims to be able to produce 32 million tonnes a year. If realised, that would make a little over $200 million a year. That is, to realise the amount claimed, the mine would have to produce at its maximum capacity for over 200 years.
But that’s the least of the problems. GVK Hancock’s own estimate of the cash costs of extracting coal is $55/tonne and others are as high as $70/tonne (I don’t know if this includes royalties. So, even at the most optimistic estimates of cost and extraction rates we are looking at a margin of $10/tonne for 32 million tonnes or $320 million a year, out of which a variety of corporate overheads will have to be paid. The capital cost of the project will be at least $10 billion. So, at current prices, the gross return on capital before interest, depreciation and amortisation (and tax, if any is paid) is at most 3.2 per cent, barely equal to the rate of interest on Australian government bonds. Obviously, no sensible lender or equity investor would look at this project.
A similar analysis can be performed for Adani’s Carmichael mine, which has apparently lost the $1 billion in funding proposed to come from the State Bank of India, as well as $300 million in equity promised by the Newman LNP government.
Adani claims cash costs of less than $50/tonne, but this seems very optimistic, being dependent on the assumption that other coal projects will fall over, reducing wages and other input costs. But it has a much higher projected output, around 50-60 million tonnes by 2022. So, it could be generating $900 million a year in EBITDA. But it’s hard to see that covering depreciation and interest on a $10 billion project. And of course, another $10-$20 off the coal price would kill the project completely, taking the lenders’ money with it.
In essence, these projects are being kept on life support in the hope of a recovery in coal prices to levels near those that were prevailing when the projects began. That really would be a miracle