By Stuart Burns
We have heard a lot in the press – and indeed we have written ourselves – about the impact of shale gas and, more recently, shale or tight oil, on the energy market in the U.S.
Lower gas prices have stimulated a pronounced switch to natural gas-powered electricity generation, provided a huge boost to the petrochemicals industry and the early steps of a switch to natural gas for transportation, but like a pebble dropping in a pond, the ripples from the shale gas revolution continue to spread outwards with consequences far beyond America’s shores.
A recent note to investors by South Africa’s Standard Bank explores one such consequence for the global thermal coal market, and as a result, for consumers of thermal coal around the world.
The bank reports that cheap natural gas has seen it eat away at coal’s pre-eminence as a feedstock in U.S. electricity generation, yet U.S. coal production has not fallen off to the same extent. As a result, this displaced demand (more than 90% of U.S. coal consumption is for electricity generation) has found its way onto international markets, particularly those of major importers Europe, China and Japan.
With demand down in the depressed European market, traditional suppliers such as Russia, Colombia and South Africa have had to look elsewhere for markets, particularly the still-expanding Asia region. For example, South Africa, long the swing supplier to Europe, has been all but displaced by cheap U.S. imports to the region and now only ships thermal coal to Asia.
This is good news for electricity consumers in Europe and Asia, as lower coal prices mitigate electricity cost pressures from other fuel sources and help in some way to share the benefits of the U.S. shale gas bonanza with the rest of the world, albeit at the expense of coal producers everywhere.
How much longer this will continue remains the subject of some debate, but with gas supplies plentiful in the U.S. and the rising threat of carbon emissions legislation making a switch back to coal unlikely, it would be surprising to see thermal coal prices rise anytime soon.
In the medium term, low prices will stifle new mine investment. The bank estimates the lowest breakeven cost for U.S. coal miners is in the region of $90/metric ton, which, given the above, provides little incentive for investment in green-field projects and, at current price levels, might even see some marginal miners go out of business.
In the meantime, the U.S. will continue to be a significant thermal coal exporter while at the same time reducing its oil imports. The point at which the country becomes a net exporter of energy as measured in barrels of oil equivalent can’t be far away.