(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Coal is unloaded onto large piles at the Ulan Coal mines near the central New South Wales rural town of Mudgee in Australia, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo
BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Chinese officials have ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to ramp up coal production by nearly 100 million tonnes as the country battles its worst power crunch and coal shortages in years.
The authorities face record-high prices and shortages of electricity that have prompted power rationing across the country, crippling industrial output.
The proposed increase would make up nearly 3% of China’s total thermal coal consumption.
In an urgent notice dated Oct. 7, the Inner Mongolia regional energy department asked the cities of Wuhai, Ordos and Hulunbuir, as well as Xilingol League, or prefecture, to notify 72 mines that they may operate at stipulated higher capacities immediately, provided they ensure safe production.
An official with the region’s energy bureau confirmed the notice but declined to say how long the production boost would be allowed to last.
Graphic: China thermal coal prices surge on strong power demand, tight mine supplies – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/gdvzywrmapw/ChinaCoalPricesOct2021.png
The notice followed a meeting on the same day during which the regional authorities mapped out measures for winter energy supplies in response to mandates from China’s State Council, or Cabinet, the state-run Inner Mongolia Daily reported on Friday.
“The (government’s) coal task force shall urge miners to raise output with no compromise, while the power task team shall have the generating firms guarantee meeting the winter electricity and heating demand,” the newspaper said.
Graphic: China power plant coal usage & inventories – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/movanjmqypa/ChinaCoalPowerPlantUseStocksOct2021.png
“This demonstrates the government is serious about raising local coal production to ease the shortage,” said a Beijing-based trader, who estimated the production boost may take up to two to three months to materialise.
The 72 mines listed by the Inner Mongolia energy bureau, most of which are open pits, previously had authorised annual capacity of 178.45 million tonnes.
The notice proposed they increase their production capacity by 98.35 million tonnes combined, according to Reuters calculations.
“It will help alleviate the coal shortage but cannot eliminate the issue,” said Lara Dong, senior director with IHS Markit.
“The government will still need to apply power rationing to ensure the balancing of the coal and power markets over the winter,” she said.
China’s Zhengzhou thermal coal futures briefly slumped 6% on Friday morning after opening up nearly 3%. The contract was down 3.2% at 1,287 yuan ($197.50) per tonne at 0400 GMT.
Inner Mongolia is China’s second-biggest coal-producing region, churning out just over 1 billion tonnes in 2020 and accounting for more than a quarter of the national total, official data show.
However, that output was down 8% in 2020 and was falling every month from April through July this year, partly due to an anti-corruption probe initiated last year by Beijing targeting the coal sector, which led to lower production as miners were banned from producing above approved capacity.
Neighbouring Shanxi province, China’s biggest coal region, had to close 27 coal mines this week due to flooding.
Coal inventories at major Chinese ports were at 52.34 million tonnes in late September before a week-long national holiday that started Oct 1, down 18% from the same period last year, data compiled by China Coal Transportation and Distribution Association showed.
Graphic: China coal inventories by location – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/gkvlgxmlbpb/ChinaCoalInventoriesOct2021.png
Meanwhile, coal consumption is climbing as northeastern China has kicked off the winter heating season, with major power plants having stockpiles for around 10 days of use, down from more than 20 days last year.
To ensure power and heating supply to residential users, China has reopened dozens of other mines and approved several new ones.
The government has also called for “appropriately” raising coal imports to levels on par with last year, analysts said, after imports fell nearly 10% in the first eight months.
It has even released Australian coal from bonded storage despite a nearly year-long unofficial import ban on coal imports from Australia, and utilities have tapped rare supply sources like Kazakhstan and the United States.
MORE COAL NEEDED
Extra production in Inner Mongolia should help ease China’s supply crunch but even an annual 98 million tonnes may not add much before winter hits, analysts and traders said.
Analysts from Guosheng Securities expect China’s thermal coal shortage to top 116 million tonnes in 2021, despite some 31 million tonnes in newly approved capacity gradually coming on line from the fourth quarter.
“More (announcements to boost coal output) will be needed and we expect it to come,” said James Stevenson, coal analyst from consultancy IHS Markit, adding that China has used all its main tools to push domestic supply and manage demand.
Benchmark spot thermal coal prices in the northern port of Qinhuangdao hit a record high of 1,079 yuan a tonne in late September.
As coal prices continue to rise, more power plants are seeing their balance sheets fall into the red and even face shutting down.
“Many more people and businesses would have been sitting in the dark had China just built coal power plants and not expanded solar and wind capacity,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, noting volatile fossil fuel prices have caused shortages, not the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables.
($1 = 6.4507 Chinese yuan)