What's being proposed is a reappraisal of the use of coal as a power source for developed economies, with a particular emphasis on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
The consensus from policy makers seems to be that, regardless of proposed investment in renewable power sources, many industrialized nations (including the UK) still face shortfalls in generating capacity. This alone is forcing a reassessment of the issue, but rising energy costs and coal's relative abundance are also leading to changes in strategic thinking.
Many CCS technologies are already used in other industrial and mining applications. CCS involves isolating and then compressing CO2 released as industrial emissions, with the CO2 then permanently stored in underground geological formations.
The main point about CCS technologies is that, if successfully implemented on an industrial scale, they could effectively transform coal into a carbon-neutral fuel source. This has obvious implications for future coal demand in a world where so many economies are struggling to meet emission targets and where other fossil fuels are rapidly being exhausted.
Can it be done?
Commercial exploitation of CCS technologies within the next two decades is certainly possible, but won't come cheap. Intervention, through state or regional government subsidies and tax incentives, will almost certainly be needed for early stage development. Several regional authorities have already expressed an interest in supporting this technology.
In Canada, for instance, the Alberta provincial authority recently announced a $2 billion initiative to drive CCS technologies. The Canada-Alberta ecoEnergy CCS Task Force estimates that CCS has the potential to eliminate 600 megatonnes (mt) of greenhouse gas emissions every year. This is roughly 40 per cent of Canada's projected emissions by 2050 and is equivalent to storing all Canada's current industrial emissions, without compromising economic growth.
Milton Catelin, chief executive of the World Coal Institute, is understandably bullish about coal's emerging eco-status: "All expert analysts predict a rising demand for coal. The greatest challenge faced by coal is how well it can respond to climate change. In this regard, numerous projects, like the Sleipner Project in the North Sea, have demonstrated that CCS technologies can safely bury large quantities of CO2 that would otherwise escape to the atmosphere. The support from G8 governments recognizes that while there may be no silver bullet to combat climate change, there will equally be no effective response to it without CCS."
Coal's resurgence as a commodity is closely linked to the rapid economic and industrial expansion of emerging economies in Asia and beyond (primarily the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China). The use of coal as a primary energy source grew by around 2.7 per cent during 2007, the majority of this attributable to the Asia Pacific region. However, the supply/demand balance is now so tight, that any supply-side shocks are amplified. Forward spot prices for both thermal (power generation) and coking (metallurgical coal, used in steelmaking) coal contracts have soared in recent months because of supply-side problems in China, South Africa and Australia.
There are separate drivers for coking and thermal coal:
The rapid growth in world demand for coking coal hasn't been met by supply, most notably due to production shortfalls, shipping delays and, more recently, severe weather in Australia, the world's largest coal exporter. Coking coal projects in Mozambique and Russia hold extensive resources but require major investment in transport infrastructure. Goldman Sachs expects contract prices for hard coking coal to hold comfortably above $200/t for another four years.
Goldman Sachs also sees strong demand growth for thermal coal to continue for the foreseeable future as many countries, in particular China and India, continue to invest heavily in new coal-fired power generation. Goldman has raised its long-term price estimate for thermal coal to $70/t.
China relies on coal to fuel 65 per cent of its domestic and industrial power needs. Rationing has been introduced in 13 of China's regions, and as coal stocks dwindled, the supply/demand balance became so acute that a partial export ban was imposed to ensure supplies and help cap rising electricity prices.
The worst winter weather in 50 years caused a spike in household power demand in the early part of this year. Central, eastern and southern regions of China were hit by sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow, which disrupted train and road deliveries of coal and food. Chinese officials were forced to divert electricity supplies from heavy industry in order to deal with the unprecedented domestic demand. The situation has since been exacerbated by a relatively dry spell, which resulted in low water levels and consequential reduction in the country's hydroelectric output.
Australian port and freight capacity has proved insufficient to meet burgeoning Asian demand and upgrades to infrastructure are not expected until 2012 at the earliest. The state government of Queensland is assessing the viability of a (A)$5.3bn (£2.5bn) proposal by Canadian-listed Waratah Coal for new mining interests in the state, which could produce 25mt of thermal coal a year for export, mainly to the Japanese and South Korean markets. An entirely new coal port has also been proposed for the central Queensland coast, with a capacity of 100mt a year.
The outlook for global exports has not been helped by persistent power blackouts in South Africa, which have forced the Mbeki government to restock coal inventories and cut back exports. The South African problems are likely to persist into 2009.
The price of coking or metallurgical-grade coal doubled over the past year as the infrastructure problems in Australia and South Africa curbed global supplies. Most supply contracts for metallurgical coal are agreed bilaterally, and large global steelmakers have been scrambling to secure supplies. ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker, recently received approval to break into Russia's resource sector via a $720m (£387m) purchase of three Siberian coal mines. The purchases boost ArcelorMittal's self-sufficiency in metallurgical coal to around 15 per cent, which the company is likely to increase over time.
ArcelorMittal also has a 19.9 per cent stake in Australia's Macarthur Coal. POSCO, the giant Korean steelmaker, has purchased a separate 10 per cent interest in the miner, and the Chinese investment group CITIC Resource Holdings holds another 18 per cent. Increased consolidation within the industry and the trend towards cross-ownership underlines the current scramble for coal. And these types of strategic holdings are leading to increased takeover speculation within the mining sector.
The take-up of CCS technologies by developed economies could form a key component of future demand. As emission targets come and go, it will be possible to gauge the relative success of alternative energy sources. If projects like the Sleipner field are successful from an environmental perspective, it would be difficult to imagine that carbon-neutral coal could not compete in the energy market on a 'per unit' cost basis, especially if commitments are made by G8 governments to cover a portion of development costs.
The current economic slowdown may have some near-term effect on coal prices. The Baltic Dry Index, which measures dry bulk shipping rates, fell by 23 per cent during June. The Index is viewed as a leading economic indicator, so the sharp fall-away in shipping volumes could signal the start of what may be a significant correction in the market for raw materials, including coal.
However, regardless of general economic conditions, the rapid development of the Chinese and Indian economies alone should underpin long-term growth of the coal market. And whilst coal remains in relative abundance, seams of high-grade metallurgical coal aren't as readily accessible. Further supply-side problems in Australia and South Africa cannot be ruled out and the problems experienced by China last winter demonstrate why price spikes resulting from climatic extremes aren't limited to soft commodities.