Coal faith is flicked to the backburner

Analysis has turned Queensland's coal-rich Galilee Basin into 'the world's most expensive cattle station' while moves afoot abroad could put more pressure on coal's fundamentals.

It has not been a good week for the coal industry.

It started with closed doors on day one of the Galilee Basin Coal Conference in Brisbane on Monday.

At last year’s conference proponents of the biggest new coal mining venture in Australia's history were holding their projects up like a kindergarten class doing show-and-tell, but on Monday the media was shut out of presentations with little “tell” and no “show".

Little wonder, with GVK Hancock's ambitions in Queensland “cut back drastically” and analysis of the ASX announcement by rail freight company Aurizon suggesting the Galilee Basin won't be developed this decade. Many saw Aurizon's play as retaining a foot in the door in the off chance these mines ever find someone willing to stump up enough cash to build them.

A new analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, covered on ABC's Lateline on Monday, examined Adani, the other favourite to develop the first coal mine in the remote Galilee Basin, and concluded the proposition was uneconomic.

Report co-author, IEEFA’s Tom Sanzillo, former first deputy comptroller of New York, said: “Our conclusion is that Carmichael (Adani’s proposed mine) presents a picture of unacceptable risk. It’s a high cost coal product in a low cost market in structural decline. The project is uneconomic by any measure.”

The problem in the Galilee, however, was shown to be deeper than the over-leveraged Adani or GVK. Report co-author Tim Buckley said: "Our analysis shows a systemic problem with the financial viability of coal mining in the Galilee Basin. Adani may have thought they were buying a coal mine, but it is increasingly likely that they have inadvertently bought themselves the world's most expensive cattle station."

Not even the recently proposed royalty holiday will make this project viable according to the report authors. Now it isn’t just the Galilee mines that are confronting the reality of being a high cost production coal resource in a low priced coal market. Research by CLSA on the $2.5 billion Wiggins Island Coal Terminal (WICET) claims the new terminal will be critically short of volume at the start of operations. The difference here is that investors may have already done their dough with WICET's bankers already nervous about the sustainability of the financing and CLSA concluding that WICET may never achieve the 24mtpa volume required to convert its debt to cheaper term funding.

As a recent report from the Centre of Policy Development, Too many ports in a storm, makes clear: “As the mining investment boom turns to bust, Queensland’s port capacity has already shifted from a shortfall to a surplus. Coal ports are operating at 65 per cent capacity, well below the industry average of 85 per cent.”

The issue of oversupply is something that may yet be of interest to Aurizon as it considers its offer to buy a 51 per cent stake in GVK’s rail infrastructure proposal. Building another coal terminal at Abbot Point might have made sense at the height of the boom, with coal prices as high as $US140 per tonne, but at the current price of $US80 per tonne – and no sign of that changing anytime soon – they would be wise to take note of what is happening at WICET to ensure they don't make the same mistake again.

What makes this boom different from the previous resource booms in Australia is its nature. Yes, it has the all the usual characteristics associated with boom-bust cycles, but it is also a commodity that is approaching the end of its viability. Not because we are running out, but because its by-product, carbon, is fuelling global warming.

Last week 27 leading climate and energy scientists from around the world used the COP19 talks in Warsaw to issue a statement saying that “new unabated coal is not compatible with keeping global warming below 2 degrees”. The same scientists went on to say that there is “no room in the remaining carbon budget for building new unabated coal power plants” and that the “current global trend of coal use is consistent with an emissions pathway above the IEA’s 6 degrees scenario.” Adding, “to have a more than 66 per cent chance of remaining on this 2 degrees pathway, the world can only emit a further 1050 GtCO2. This is approximately one-quarter of all known global fossil fuel reserves.”

The scientists go on to urge financial institutions to help with the transition to a low-carbon economy by funding renewables while “stopping finance for the further expansion of unabated coal”.

The coal industry may think the combination of, Campbell “we’re in the coal business” Newman and the Abbott government mean they will have a dream run in realising their ambitions, but the truth is they are already on the wrong side of history.

All up, what we are seeing is more evidence that the age of coal is ending. Those who fail to read the signs – be they in government in Queensland, companies like Adani and GVK, or institutional lenders like ANZ – do so at the risk of their constituents, shareholders and customers.

Erland Howden is energy campaigner for Greenpeace.