The Coal Cartel ? Why Adani’s prospects haven’t improved

In my recent piece in The Guardian, mostly about Adani, I observed

The paradoxes of Adani are mirrored in the global coal market. Despite a small increase in 2017, global coal production is below its 2013 peak. Yet prices have recovered strongly, yielding big profits to existing miners and offering a seemingly tempting prospect for new mines.

It turns out that this isn’t quite right. The benchmark Newcastle price, for low-ash coal with a heat content of 6000kcal/kg has risen strongly, to the great benefit of companies like Yancoal, Glencore and Whitehaven. It turns out, however, that this increase isn’t representative of the broader market. Prices for lower quality coal with lower heat content and higher ash content haven’t moved at all, with the result that the premium between higher and lower grades has grown dramatically.

What’s going on here? One possible explanation is that Yancoal and Glencore, who produce the majority of Australia’s high-grade coal, have engaged in successful cartel behavior. Another is that the premium reflects shifts in demand (with China and India increasingly rejecting high ash coal, while Japan continues to demand high grade coal) and supply (few new mines are opening, and this has a bigger effect on the smaller market for high grade coal).

Whatever the explanation, most analysts agree that it is more likely to be resolved by a decline in the price of high-grade coal rather than an increase in the price of low-grade coal.

Where does Adani fit into all this. Most of the discussion I’ve found focuses on the premium between 6000kcal/kg and 5500 kcal/kg. Coal extracted from the Carmichael mine would be much lower quality, below 5000 kcal/kg.

Adani on life support

I have a piece in The Guardian under the headline Adani’s rail line cut shows project is on life support but still a threat to climate, starting with the observation

The recent announcement by Adani that it will halve the costs of its rail line to the proposed Carmichael coalmine by building a shorter, narrow-gauge line raises an obvious question: if such a massive cost-saving is feasible, why didn’t Adani go that way in the first place?

I also address the broader question

If coal is doomed, why has the price recoverd

Peace for our time ?

Amid the recent upsurge of leadership speculation, this time affecting the government, a crucial observation on the so-called National Energy Guarantee seems to have been missed.

No one thinks the NEG is a good policy: its selling point is the claim that it could resolve, once and for all, the political fight over climate and energy policy.  After the last few days, that claim has fallen in a heap. A few days after claiming the endorsement of his party room for the previous version of the NEG, Turnbull is doing an emergency rewrite of the NEG to stave off a rebellion and perhaps a challenge to his job.

This half-baked compromise, if it works at all, won’t resolve anything. There’s no target for emissions reductions, which might help get legislation through Parliament, but leaves the most important single issue for later. The already messy pricing system is to be complicated further by unspecified policies to reduce prices directly. And the denialists are still pushing for a publicly funded coal-fired power station.

Supposing this chimera somehow struggles into existence, it will last as long as the political stars with which it is aligned. If Turnbull loses to the right of his own party, the whole thing will be dumped in favor of policies driven by culture war concerns rather than economics, let alone climate. If Labor wins, they will need to dump this mess and start again, effectively from scratch.

I have in my mind a picture of Turnbull, descending the steps of a plane and waving a peace of paper while he announces “Peace for our Time”. I guess that can’t literally happen since the relevant meetings will all take place in Canberra and tarmac photo-ops are confined to state visits these days. But I doubt that Turnbull’s deal will last as long as Chamberlain’s did.

Coal and the nuclear lobby (updated)

Against my better judgement, I got sucked into a minor Twitterstorm over the weekend. The main outcome was to remind me that, while Twitter is useful in the role of a microblog, providing quick links to, and sharp observations on, more substantial material, it is utterly useless as a venue for discussion and debate.

Update : A large number of nuclear fans were eager to tweet and share snarky responses on Twitter, but only three people were willing to debate the issue here. Thanks to David Michie, Jonathan Suhanto and Ben Huxham who did at least respond. For those concerned that I might have a home-field advantage, I suggested that they post on a site of their own, with links, but no one took this idea up.  That says it all for the nuclear “debate” on Twitter, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve muted the lot of them.  End update.

In this case, the debate was over nuclear power, and this post from last year. It’s reasonable to ask why I would bother arguing about nuclear power, given my frequently expressed view that it’s dead as a doornail. The problem is that nuclear fans like Ben Heard are, in effect, advocates for coal. Their line of argument runs as follows

(1) A power source with the characteristics of coal-fired electricity (always on) is essential if we are to decarbonise the electricity suppy
(2) Renewables can’t meet this need
(3) Nuclear power can
Hence, we must find a way to support nuclear

The problem is that, on any realistic analysis, there’s no chance of getting a nuclear plant going in Australia before about 2040 (see over the fold). So, the nuclear fans end up supporting the Abbott crew saying that we will have to rely on coal until then. And to make this case, it is necessary to ignore or denounce the many options for an all-renewable electricity supply, including concentrated solar power, large-scale battery storage and vehicle-to-grid options. As a result, would-be green advocates of nuclear power end up reinforcing the arguments of the coal lobby.

Read More »

Can the electricity system be fixed ?

I’m going to be talking to Steve Austin on ABC 612 Brisbane today, hopefully about COAG’s rejection of the Turnbull government’s National Energy Guarantee. As I said when this policy was cooked up in a matter of a few weeks last year

The most important thing to understand about the federal government’s new National Energy Guarantee is that it is designed not to produce a sustainable and reliable electricity supply system for the future, but to meet purely political objectives for the current term of parliament.

Those political objectives are: to provide a point of policy difference with the Labor Party; to meet the demands of the government’s backbench to provide support for coal-fired electricity; and to be seen to be acting to hold power prices down.

To expand a bit on the first point, this is a policy that won’t survive past the next election. If Labor wins, they’ll need to raise the emissions reduction target and that will entail dismantling most of the elaborate structure of the NEG. If, regrettably, Turnbull is re-elected, he’ll face immense pressure from the backbench to do more for coal. On past form, and the indications of recent weeks, he’ll comply. If it should survive, the policy won’t deliver any significant change from the current no-policy trajectory, because it’s essentially designed to do nothing.

But if not the NEG, what can be done to fix the shambles that is our electricity system? Here’s a very brief outline:

(i) a publicly owned national grid, operated by a statutory authority with a service orientation encompassing the goals of security of supply, affordable electricity, and a transition to a fully renewable generation system
(ii) the abandonment of the electricity pool market, in favor of longer dated supply contracts, with an order-of-merit system of supply management
(iii) a mixture of public and private electricity generation and networked storage
(iv) reintegration of distribution and retail services

Alphabet soup of denialism

In the last week we’ve had reports on the future of the electricity system from the ACCC, AEMO and ESB.  These acronymic bodies all share in the responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in today. Their reports are not only inconsistent with each other in critical respects, but internally incoherent.

The one thing they have in common is that they all assume that Australia should do nothing more about climate change. In this, they are reflecting the Trumpist views of our  government, restated more elegantly by its vapid frontman, Malcolm Turnbull.

The idea that these denialist policies could somehow represent a solution to the dispute over energy policy in Australia is bizarre. When and if the Trumpists are defeated, we will need a radical increase in ambition. A carbon price should be part of this, but the policy disasters of the last five years mean that much more drastic action will be needed.

The only benefit of the last week’s output is to remind us that the entire alphabet soup of bodies running our failing energy season needs to be tipped down the drain and replaced with a publicly owned grid, and a radical transformation of electricity generation, phasing out coal as rapidly as possible.