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Prevailing commentary that the future of the Australian coal sector is secure ignores some key trends. Reuters/Jason Lee

The danger of stranded assets lurks for unwary coal producers

The prevailing mainstream commentary of the Australian coal sector is that its future is secure.

Any lost demand from China for Australian exports will be replaced by demand from India. Other growth markets such as South East Asia will also fill the gap. Shifts in demand for renewable energy are not material to the outlook.

But some key trends sketch out a different story.

In 2014, thermal coal use in China fell 2.9% on the previous year’s consumption. In 2014, the Chinese economy grew 7.4% and electricity production grew 3.8% via everything but coal: solar, wind, hydro, nuclear and biomass. In fact, China’s coal fired power generation was down 3%.

Chinese coal imports dropped by 11% over 2014 and a further 38% in the first four months of 2015 due to the government prioritising sourcing coal domestically to assist local producers who are losing money, as well as the contractionary cycle.

Australian coal producers remain optimistic though that demand from India will compensate. However this demand is unlikely to eventuate. In just a few years, India’s coal demand will be met by domestic sources and by 2017 they expect to stop importing coal altogether. They are also ramping up production of their renewable energy industry to transform the way India sources electricity. It is also important to note that many regional areas in India do not have grid infrastructure, and are therefore unable to benefit from coal-fired power generation without significant capital investment.

The recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report predicts South-East Asia coal demand will triple in the next 25 years and commentators are suggesting that this changes the outlook for Australian producers. But South-East Asia represents 6% of world traded coal in 2014, so finding a small growth market will do nothing to offset the collapse in price in the main markets. Further, China, Japan and India are 50% of the world traded coal market and all three have peaked. That is why the coal price is down a further 20% this year.

Only a few companies are undertaking assessments of the risk of stranded assets, to understand the potential implications on their business. In October 2015, BHP Billiton produced a detailed analysis assessing the possibility for reduced demand of their resources due to the transition to clean technology and the risks that climate change pose to its asset portfolio.

The report predicts the continuing climb of the world’s energy demand, in line with GDP growth. While this is historically the case, many countries are beginning to decouple the two indexes. If these emergent trends continue, energy demand will still rise, but not as significantly as predicted.

BHP asserts that its coal assets will be safe due to their high quality and low price. This is also true, but the assessment doesn’t take into account the potential for governments to protect their domestic coal industries, avoiding imports, as China and India are doing.

BHP’s analysis of renewables is based around the assumption that uptake of renewables will be forced by government policy. The report does not consider that the continued drop in renewable technology prices will see deployment grow independent of subsidy and potential increase in growth rates, beyond historic trends. There is growing analyst consensus that there will be mass-market uptake of battery storage over the next five years. This is also predicted to dramatically increase the growth rate for deployment of renewables.

Last month, Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned that the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves could become stranded assets if scientist’s estimates on how we cannot afford to burn these reserves proved approximately correct. Many were surprised that a mainstream banker was articulating the view that this has the potential destabilise existing energy markets and shake up countries’ economies.

Mining and energy companies are starting to feel the pinch. Glencore is the story of the Titanic. In May 2015, they assessed their stranded-asset-risk at zero. Not 10%, or 1.5%, but no chance whatsoever.

Glencore is now in financial trouble due to a combination of too much debt, off balance sheet leverage and low resource prices, particularly coal. Six months ago the company told investors at the Annual General Meeting that there was “no risk” that its assets would become stranded.

Glencore’s grim financial situation and reasons for it shares some similarities to that of US coal mining company, Peabody Energy Corporation.

These company’s often irreverent attitude towards the risk posed by both climate change and renewable energy could be seen by investors as a proxy for how it approaches risk in all other aspects of their business.

In Queensland, the Adani Carmichael coal mine that has just been approved is another example of a coal project that is struggling with finance. Both NAB and the Commonwealth Bank backed out of funding roles in the project, and other big multinational financiers, such as JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley and Citibank have said they will not invest. Many see the project as commercially unviable and that given the macro trends around thermal coal, the sector is in structural decline.

It is understandable that companies want to keep their business outlooks positive and not spook their shareholders. It makes sense that they don’t wish to include the complex, knotty issues.

But these issues are why you employ sophisticated risk analysts and they make for a more balanced approach. These recent cases show that ignoring them doesn’t make them disappear.

The hope is that the industry will mature and start thinking in a more nuanced way about these risks. BHP Billiton’s report on this is a good start.

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