THE Hunter coal industry is bracing for potentially sizeable job losses, with demand falling along with price and one of the region's biggest mine owners, Glencore, confirming it will cut production in the Hunter Region.
Prices for Newcastle export coal bound for China have fallen to as little as $US37 ($52) a tonne, down from $US52 ($73.20) this time last year and $US73 ($98.60) a tonne in August 2018.
While coal prices regularly rise and fall like many commodities, Newcastle export volumes have doubled in the past 20 years.
The falling sales volumes are regarded as partly COVID-related, but also a consequence of China's politically driven port restrictions on Australian coal.
The latest monthly summary from coal loader operator Port Waratah Coal Services shows volumes for the year down by almost 8 per cent, while shipments for July, at 6.85 million tonnes, were down by a third on the 10.5 million tonnes shipped in July 2019.
The fall in demand is reflected also in shipping statistics, with 656 vessels loaded at PWCS up to the end of July, 30 fewer than in the first seven months of 2019.
The industry has avoided serious interruption by COVID-19 in Australia but it appears that the shutdowns in virtually every country are cutting the amount of electricity being consumed.
This means lower demand for the thermal coal used to feed power stations, which makes up about 85 per cent of the coal sent through the Port of Newcastle.
Environmentalists hope the reductions in coal-fired power are permanent.
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Coal companies have been reluctant to comment on the situation - pointing instead to recent investor advice given in quarterly and half-year reports - but rumours of job cuts are sweeping the industry, with the region's mines producing far more coal than they can sell.
Sources say coal is piling up at mines around the valley, with at least one mine forced to build a new "pad", or storage area, because production was far outstripping the company's ability to sell its already stockpiled coal.
The supply and demand dynamics resulting from COVID-19 will continue to influence both thermal and metallurgical coal prices significantlyYancoal CEO David Moult
The CFMEU's district president, Peter Jordan, yesterday acknowledged the "volatility" in the industry.
"I urge mining companies to do everything they can to keep people employed, including contractors who have in many cases put in years of loyal work - their jobs shouldn't be treated as disposable," Mr Jordan said.
Mr Jordan said the economy was facing big challenges, and these affected commodity prices, including coal. "However, the mining industry has held up remarkably well so far," Mr Jordan said.
"Mining jobs will be more important than ever in Australia's economic recovery."
Glencore and the Chinese-controlled Yancoal are the two biggest exporters through the Port of Newcastle, and both have warned the market in recent days of their concerns over the Hunter coal market.
Glencore produced 140 million tonnes globally last year from its 26 mines, 10 of which are in the Hunter.
Friday's report said that after producing 58 million tonnes in the first half of the year, it was cutting its full-year guidance from 132 million tonnes to 114 million tonnes, a reduction of 18 million tonnes, or 14 per cent of production.
The report said the new figures "reflect(ed)" a plan for "targeted volume reductions in Australia" in the second half of 2020, "given current market conditions", indicating that the brunt of the production cuts will be borne in the Hunter.
Although the report did not mention jobs, Glencore made a similar move in 2015, when it told the market it was cutting production by 15 per cent, again in an effort to lift prices, which were at similar levels to where they are today.
Soon after, jobs were cut at various mines including Mount Owen, and prices began to increase in a three-year zig-zag that peaked in July 2018, when prices hit $US120 ($166) a tonne, before starting their steady two-year retreat.
Yancoal's June quarter report, issued last month, included stark commentary on the situation, with the company saying its "realised average prices" for the three months to the end of June 2020 were down by 25 per cent on the same period last year.
Average realised prices fell from $124 ($US88) in the first half of 2019, to $94 ($US64.60).
Yancoal announced operating cash costs - which do not include royalties or financing costs - of about $61, which equates to about $US43.30 at present exchange rates.
This is above the present spot price for high-ash coal, which was sitting last week at just above $US37 a tonne.
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