China's Coal Imports Climb

World's top coal producer is biggest importer.
An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
2012-12-31
Email story
Comment on this story
Share story
Print story
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Email
china-coal-color-305.gif
Workers at a coal factory in Huaibei, central China's Anhui province, Oct. 15, 2012.
AFP CHINA XTRA

Despite a slowdown in economic growth, China's coal output and imports have continued climbing to record highs.

Industry estimates suggest that the total of China's coal production and imports in 2012 neared a monumental 4 billion metric tons.

At that rate, China is burning over 10 million tons of the high-emission fuel every day.

The China Coal Industry Association said domestic output alone topped 3.7 billion tons, Shanghai Securities News reported.

Based on a comparison of 11-month figures with U.S. data from the Department of Energy, China is producing more than four times as much coal as the United States.

Under China's 12th Five-Year Plan, the country's coal consumption was projected to reach 3.9 billion metric tons by 2015, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said.

The industry figures suggest that China is already at that level now.

On track

With economic growth projected at some 7.7 percent for the past year, China's coal output is on track to rise by 8.8 percent.

But that has not stopped China from importing ever- increasing amounts of coal.

Imports were expected to reach 270 million tons, the industry association said. Beijing-based consultant JYD Online said the volume represents a 48-percent increase over 2011, state media reported.

The growth in supplies has outpaced consumption despite high stockpiles, slumping prices and a 22-percent decline in producers' profits, according to industry figures.

Ordinarily, those conditions would be enough to discourage imports.

But circumstances in China and world markets have combined to spur import growth, said Philip Andrews-Speed, principal fellow in the East Asia program at the National University of Singapore's Energy Studies Institute.

Some mines have been overproducing with local government support, although rail capacity shortages keep sufficient supplies from reaching some coastal cities, Andrews-Speed said.

The distribution problems have helped to drive imports at a time when world coal prices are low.

Shale gas upsurge

Ironically, the surge in U.S. shale gas production has weakened domestic coal demand and prices, driving increases in coal use abroad.

"The decline of the fuel in the U.S. has helped to cut prices for coal globally, which has made it more attractive, even in Europe where coal use was supposed to be discouraged by the emissions trading scheme," said the British newspaper The Guardian.

In China, infrastructure problems have combined with surging demand to propel imports despite efforts to boost efficiency and cleaner fuels.

Although the increase China's coal output accounted for more than three-fourths of global growth in 2011, the country also surpassed Japan as the world's biggest importer, the IEA said in its Medium-Term Coal Market Report.

China is projected to burn over half the world's coal starting in 2014. Even in case of an economic slowdown, China's coal use is expected to grow by 2 percent annually through 2017.

Much of the demand has come from heavy industries like iron and steel, which raised production nearly fivefold while tripling coal use between 2000 and 2010, the report said.

Imports crucial

China's huge consumption and transport limitations seem to assure that imports will continue.

The country is largely dependent on railroads to move coal from production bases in the north and west to consuming centers in the south and east.

Coal accounts for more than half of China's rail tonnage, but bottlenecks in the system have forced more coal onto waterways and crowded roads, the IEA said.

Under the five-year plan, rail transport of coal is expected to reach 2.6 billion tons by 2015. Some 60 percent of the traffic would come from Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces and Inner Mongolia to coastal centers, the northeast and the south.

Despite increases in rail and domestic transport to coastal ports, imports are still expected for eastern and southern provinces including Jilin, Zhejiang and Guangdong, the report indicated.

Wang Zhanjun, head of the coal association, said at an industry meeting in Shanxi on Dec. 22 that imports are set to continue at "high levels" in 2013, Xinhua reported.