Long considered an abundant, reliable and relatively cheap source of energy, coal is suddenly in short supply and high demand worldwide.
An untimely confluence of bad weather, flawed energy policies, low stockpiles and voracious growth in Asia‘s appetite has driven international spot prices of coal up by 50 percent or more in the past five months, surpassing the escalation in oil prices.
The signs of a coal crisis have been showing up from mine mouths to factory gates and living rooms: As many as 45 ships were stacked up in Australian ports waiting for coal deliveries slowed by torrential rains. China and Vietnam, which have thrived by sending goods abroad, abruptly banned coal exports, while India‘s import demands are up. Factory hours have been shortened in parts of China, and blackouts have rippled across South Africa and Indonesia‘s most populous island, Java.
Meanwhile mining companies are enjoying a windfall. Freight cars in Appalachia are brimming with coal for export, and old coal mines in Japan have been reopened or expanded. European and Japanese coal buyers, worried about future supplies, have begun locking in long-term contracts at high prices, and world steel and concrete prices have risen already, fueling inflation.
In the United States, the boom in coal exports and prices has helped lower the trade deficit, which declined last year for the first time since 2001. The value of coal exports, which account for 2.5 percent of all U.S. exports, grew by 19 percent last year, to $4.1 billion, the National Mining Association said. An even bigger increase is expected this year.
That means that, in a small way, higher revenues for U.S. coal exports indirectly helped the U.S. economy cover the cost of iPods from China, flat-screen TVs from Japan and machinery from Germany. The still-gaping trade deficit of the world’s largest industrial power at the dawn of the 21st century was slightly eased by a fuel from the era and pages of Charles Dickens.
Big swings in the prices of coal and other commodities are common. But while the price of coal has slipped slightly in recent weeks, many analysts and companies are wondering whether high prices are here to stay. As increasing numbers of the world’s poor join the middle classes, hooking up to electricity grids and buying up more manufactured goods, demand for coal grows. World consumption of coal has grown 30 percent in the past six years, twice as much as any other energy source. About two-thirds of the fuel supplies electricity plants, and just under a third heads to industrial users, mostly steel and concrete makers. Click here to read the rest of the article