Bloomberg: “Cheap” Coal is Dead
June 21, 2012
Climate Deniers can only say coal is cheap because they do not value our children’s futures, to say nothing of their brains, lungs, and sex organs.
But even if you leave human health and well being out of the equation, “cheap” coal is gone, and the coal industry is a dead man walking.
In March, the power generating arm of India’s largest conglomerate, the Tata Group, announced that it was shifting its investment strategy from coal-fired thermal plants to wind and solar renewable projects. Coal projects, Tata said, were becoming “impossible” to develop, and investment in them had stopped.
With this declaration, one of Asia’s biggest energy players confirmed an emerging reality. The U.S., Europe, Russia, Australia and Japan all had created modern consumer economies dependent on abundant, cheap fossil-fuel energy. In the 21st century that is no longer viable; the high-carbon growth path is closing.
The reason is cost. Oil has long been expensive, because low-cost oil producers such as Saudi Arabia have learned to demand high prices by limiting supplies and refusing to sign long-term price agreements. Coal had always been different — traded locally, on both long-term concessions and short-term spot contracts. Two years ago, China and India could supplement their domestic coal supplies with imports from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa. Some of the cheapest coal mines serving China in 2010 were in Indonesia, where India’s Adani Power Ltd. and Tata were purchasing coal mines and building their own shipping and port facilities to ensure they could supply a wave of huge new power projects.
While coal is geologically more abundant than oil, cheap coal, close to population centers, is not. The biggest coal- producing region in the U.S. — the Powder River Basin — can get coal out of the ground for about $12 a ton. It costs roughly $60 a ton to ship it to power plants in the Ohio Valley. China’s vast reserves near Inner Mongolia can be mined for $25 a ton. But by the time it travels by rail across North China, then by sea to southern coastal cities, the cost rises to more than $125 a ton.