Pressure is building at the coalface

In any business there is always an "X" factor, something out of left field that could emerge to undermine growth.

In any business there is always an "X" factor, something out of left field that could emerge to undermine growth.

In the media sector, it has been the internet, which, while offering a new delivery platform, has forced a thorough rewriting of revenue models and methods of product delivery, shutting down printing plants and shifting to a "virtual reality" online.

Ditto for software developers and marketers, which are in the process of rewriting their business model around the cloud. Rather than selling software in a one-off transaction, it is now provided as an online service.

In the resources space, the bright future flagged for Queensland's gas exporters has been confronted by the prospect of rivals from North America eating their lunch by tapping shale gas reserves. Rather than the cushy future they looked to, supplying a resource-hungry Asia, they face a slew of new competition.

For the coal industry, particularly steam coal exporters, it has been exports from Indonesia, which emerged out of left field over the past few years to undermine much of their hoped-for prosperity.

As export prices for coal skyrocketed, Chinese power companies turned increasingly to Indonesia for super-cheap coal, really little more than anthracite.

It is cheap for a reason, since it is high in moisture, ash and sulphur, and low in so-called calorific value, that is the "heat" it can generate. In other words, cheap and dirty, which displaced Australian exports and squeezed prices.

And almost as suddenly as it has appeared, plans are emerging that could derail some of this competitive pressure, although the medium-term threat of rising coal exports from North America remains, since US coal is being displaced in the domestic (US) market by cheaper gas reserves, and its producers will turn to export markets for sales.

China's National Energy Administration has tabled a draft regulation that would cut right across cheap Indonesian imports of coal, seeking to axe all imports with a calorific value of less than 4500 kilocalories a kilogram, more than 1 per cent sulphur and 25 per cent ash.

Amid worsening air pollution Beijing is finally acting. And a quick and easy means of doing so is to block imports of low-quality coal, putting the central government directly at odds with its power utilities.

There already has been speculation of a surge of imports ahead of any ban, amid speculation some large users will simply seek to blend as much low-quality coal with better product to limit the impact of tougher controls.

And, with the outcome of this fight set to take a little while yet to become clear, the Indonesian government has been quick to respond, if only to try to blunt domestic concerns.

"If one country doesn't want to import, we'll look for another market. If exports decline, we can use it domestically," Indonesia's Energy and Mineral Resources Minister, Jero Wacik, was quoted in the local media as saying earlier in the week.

Despite the bravado, finding alternative markets, and uses, will take time.

The domestic solution - specifically, it has outlined a plan to add some 5000 megawatts to the 35,000 megawatts of domestic coal-fired power station capacity planned for construction - would go some way to soaking up the displaced coal.

To finalise, this option will take time - and cost a bucket load of money.

It also holds the threat of bringing worsening air pollution closer to Australia's part of the world.

For Australia's exporters of steaming coal - with NSW producers among the most marginal domestically since many of the mines are small underground operations - the prospect of Indonesian coal being forced out of the Chinese market could not come soon enough.

The likes of Yanzhou Coal, which has the dominant stake in Yancoal, will be hoping to benefit as it looks to lift returns after its plunge into the local coal sector with the purchase of mines in both the Hunter Valley of NSW and Queensland.

Ditto for Thailand's Banpu, which bought Centennial Coal, giving it a suite of small mines in NSW. It is moving to lift output to 15 million tonnes, while cutting costs by as much as 10 per cent as it grapples with the changing market dynamics since it bought into the local industry.

After topping $US200 a tonne for a time in early 2009, steaming coal, which is used mostly in power generation, is now fetching around $US80 ($83) a tonne in export markets.

Few local producers are making money at these levels, and the prospect that Indonesian competition in export markets may be reduced gives them a window of opportunity to revive profitability before the onslaught of US coal exports is felt in Asian markets.

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