India’s coal imports rebound

In recent months, India’s coal imports have revived to close to pre-pandemic levels, and the market shares of the countries supplying cargoes have shifted due to China’s dispute with Australia.

India imported 17.56 million tonnes of thermal and coking coal in January, according to Refinitiv’s report. This was down slightly from December’s 17.74 million tonnes and 18.02 million in October, but a touch above November’s 17.54 million.

India’s appetite for imported coal has returned in the last four months, after taking a blow in the middle of last year as the government locked down the South Asian nation as part of efforts to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In January, India’s imports were just 2.6% lower than the 18.02 million tonnes from the same month in 2020, while December’s were 2.1% below the level of December 2019.

The economic hit caused by the lockdown, imposed last March, started to show up in coal imports in May, when just 10.3 million tonnes was discharged, which dropped even further to 8.81 million in June, which was the lowest since Refinitiv started tracking in January 2015.

However, by October, imports were almost at pre-pandemic levels, as power demand rose as the economy restarted and steel demand also recovered as construction and infrastructure spending recovered.

India is the world’s second-biggest coal importer behind China, and the influence of China is being felt in India’s coal market.

China has placed an effective ban on imports from Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coking coal used to make steel, and the second-biggest shipper of thermal coal used in power plants.

China is unhappy with Australia over a range of issues, including Australia’s call for an international investigation in the origins of the coronavirus and China’s response to the initial outbreak.

This has led to a series of trade actions by China against Australia, including bans or tariffs on coal, barley, some meat, wine and tourism, among other items.

Ironically, China is spending more than ever on imports from Australia, given its reliance on iron ore and liquefied natural gas, two commodities commanding high prices and for which Australia is the world’s largest exporter.

But while Australian coal exporters have been shut out of China, they have been making inroads in India, with imports from Australia hitting a record high 6.75 million tonnes in January, according to Refinitiv.

This was up from 6.32 million tonnes in December, 5.06 million in November and 5.49 million in October.

Cumulatively, the past four months have been the strongest for Indian imports of Australian coal since Refinitiv started assessments in January 2015.

January’s imports were also 81% up from the 3.72 million tonnes recorded in the same month in 2020, and some 301% above the low in 2020 of 1.68 million in June.

India traditionally bought coking coal from Australia given its limited domestic reserves of this higher-energy grade, but in recent months it has started buying increasing volumes of thermal coal.

Australia’s thermal coal exports to India were 1.87 million tonnes in December 2020, up 450% from 340,000 tonnes in December 2019, according to data from commodity price reporting agency Argus.

It’s also likely that what the market is experiencing is more of a permanent shift in dynamics, as there is no sign that China will ease its ban on Australian coal, and even if it does the trading relationship may be damaged to the point where it is difficult to repair.


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