Trashed by environmentalist, near and far, it is the bad boy of the energy arena. Environmentally hazardous, its producers and consumers are notoriously lax in even attempting to do something to control the pollution they spill into our atmosphere. You know these boys. Their industry usually hides under the proverbial wood pile minting money, only reluctantly revealing themselves in daylight when called to explain yet another mine disaster or ruined river. So why is the demand for coal and those that produce it gaining popularity on Wall Street?
Coal, for those who don’t know, is divided into two categories: metallurgical or coking coal, which is used for steel making and thermal or steam coal, which is used for heating and electrical generation. “Met” coal is a high priced, low volume product that boasts a high heating value. Here in the U.S., we only consume about 15 million tons of Met and the rest (30-40 million tons) we export to places like China.
Met coal is used in 70 % of global steel production and accounts for 10% of world coal production. It is steel’s primary energy source and takes 1300 lbs of coal (called coke) to produce one ton of steel. The demand for this kind of coal has been rising steadily for some time as country after country in the emerging markets produce more and more steel for building infrastructure and export.
The recent earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan has opened up an enormous new market for steel and the coal to produce it. Japan has already embarked on the expensive and necessary task of rebuilding. Investors figure Japan is going to need a lot of steel (and therefore coking coal) to accomplish that. Together with the already robust demand from emerging markets, the stocks of these coal producers are in demand.
But that is only one side of the coal market. Thermal or steam coal production dwarfs that of its pricier cousin. Thermal’s primary use is in power generation. World-wide over 7 billion tons of this stuff is consumed each year. The U.S. uses about a billion tons/year, but because it’s heavy and expensive to ship, not much (about 22 million tons) of it is exported.
The fact that over 40% of the world’s electricity is derived from coal-fired power plants explains why in an era of solar, wind, natural gas and other green alternative energy sources, old King Coal keeps rolling along. It took many years and trillions of dollars to build this coal-based system of power generation. It will take a lot more time, effort and money to convert that system to alternative fuels.
Here in the U.S., 48% of our electricity comes from steam coal. Once again, thanks to the on-going crisis in containing and preventing a radioactive melt down in Japan’s Fukushima plant that percentage of use could increase if nuclear power generation is derailed in this country. Worldwide, politicians and voters appear to want at least a moratorium on building new nuclear plants until further studies are done analyzing their safety and other factors. Since we all know how long studies take, this delay can take time and any energy gaps will be filled by additional coal consumption. Investors are quick to realize that this presents further opportunities for additional coal consumption.
Coupled with these developments is China’s new status as a net importer of coal beginning in 2009. Most of the 126 metric tons of new imports have come from Australia, but there is some discussion on whether the U.S., which some call the “Saudi Arabia of coal” with 238 billion tons of proven reserves, could figure out a way of exporting our coal cheaply to Asia. That would translate into a big jump in the price of coal stocks.
Does all this new coal demand mean that we will have to settle for coal and its residual pollution as a major source of energy in this country forever?
Not necessarily. It is true, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, that 44% of the coal-fired plants in this country currently have no pollution control equipment. There are 400 coal-fired plants spread across 46 states. Their emissions result in about 380,000 tons of black garbage that is spewed into our air each year. Mercury emissions alone around these plants are killing 17,000 people each year and causing 11,000 hear attacks, not to mention the impact on children, whose health is affected most by these poisons.
Even the billions in bribes the industry has paid to Washington for decades to overlook these ‘minor nuisances’ no longer work. Americans have demanded and government has finally agreed to take action. As a result, the industry has been warned that they either retrofit existing facilities with counter measures or close them entirely over the next few years. The EPA’s new emission restrictions require a removal of 90% of mercury emissions by 2015, along with 80% of sulfurous oxides and 52% of nitrous oxides by 2018. These new standards will apply to 31 states and the District of Columbia.
It will mean an enormous expense and effort on the part of power generators. Of course, much of the expense will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher monthly energy bills, but even then I suspect that some plants just won’t be able to continue to functions. As a result, I expect to see cheaper (and cleaner) natural gas replace coal in the generation of electricity over the next few years. That’s good news for all of us and for natural gas producers. Did I mention that I like that sector as well? I guess that will have to wait for a future column.