They used to be known as penny dreadfuls – the highly speculative stocks that became the playthings of the mining boom of the 1960s and 1970s and what followed. And judging by the moniker accorded them, they were mostly bad outcomes.
The currency units might have changed, but it seems that the moniker still applies – not just to speculative mining stocks with tall tales of mythical or unobtainable ore bodies, but to the thermal coal industry, with equally tall tales of a long-term market for its commodity.
And it seems that one dollar, a greenback, or even just one euro can go an awfully long way in the coal industry these days.
In Australia, it can buy you a mine that just three years ago was valued at $860 million. Brazilian miner Vale and Japan’s Sumitomo Corp have just sold the Isaac Plains coking-coal mine in Queensland to Stanmore Coal for a single dollar. Sumitomo bought a half stake for $A430 million in 2012.
In Germany, one euro can buy you a share in a brand new, never used, 1.6GW coal-fired generator in Hamm. RWE has offered to pay €1 to the 23 municipalities for their share of the $4 billion facility that not only faces major technical issues, but it is also effectively redundant and not needed in a country now more dependent on renewable energy.
One dollar will also buy you a share in Peabody Coal, the world’s biggest privately-owned coal company. Four years ago, those shares would have cost $US72, but the case for coal is no longer as compelling as it once was. Dozens of other listed companies are worth even less, having gone broke or filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Back in Australia, AGL Energy got a dollar’s change from its dollar when it bought the 2.4GW black coal generator Liddell in the Hunter Valley. It came as part of a package with the Bayswater coal generator bought from the NSW government for a total of $1.5 billion.
But given the value of Bayswater and the value of discounted coal stockpiles, AGL effectively saw Liddell as a “free option”, a facility that would run as long as its major customer, Tomago aluminium smelter, continues to operate.
A bunch of other coal assets in Australia have also closed, or are about to close. These include the Collinsville, EnergyBrix, and the Playford and Northern coal-fired generators, along with Wallerawang in NSW.
Many large coal-fired generators might also close, but the cost of closure – and the remediation that it will trigger – is greater than the cost of running the plants. So in the absence of a government handout to help with mitigation costs – and without a carbon price – the generators keep running.
Of course, coal is not the only asset that you could have picked up for nothing, or next to nothing, in recent months. Earlier this year, Canadian Solar effectively bough a 1.5GW portfolio of large scale projects in Australia from Recurrent Energy for free, part of a broader package of projects in the US and elsewhere.
At the time of that purchase, investment in large-scale renewable energy projects in Australia had effectively come to a halt. They had been for two years, and still are, a reflection of government policy to reduce the target, and then announce to the world that the government did not like certain forms of renewables, funds would be curtailed, and that the reduced target for renewables was “more than enough” for Australia.
Coal, on the other hand, has had the full backing of the government. Tony Abbott declares it is “good for humanity” and has taken key measures that benefit the coal industry and few others – such as dumping the carbon price, slashing the renewable energy target, and trying to cripple other research and financing organisations.
Abbott even borrows the marketing bullet points from Big Coal in arguing that it is the only way to bring hundreds of millions of Indians out of “energy poverty”. The World Bank, the IEA, and other groups say this is nonsense.
While Abbott and his team echo the US Republicans and rail against fossil fuel “sabotage”, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former New York mayor this week wrote that the demise of coal was being caused by market forces, and not as a result of any “War on Coal”.
Bloomberg said the coal industry had been in decline for a decade, and much of this had been due to the fact that consumers were demanding cleaner air and action on climate change, and coal pollution was killing 13,000 people a year in the US alone.
“King Coal is dying of natural causes: Market forces, technological advances, and public demands for clean air and climate action have combined to make alternative sources of energy more financially attractive.”
Bloomberg noted that the price of new wind power in most parts of the US was now lower than that of coal. The same is true in New Zealand, which is about to close its last coal-fired generators because renewables – mainly wind and geothermal – are cheaper.
Indeed, wind, and pretty soon solar, are the cheapest form of energy for any country that needs new generation, and that does not include the savings from avoided environmental impacts.
“Critics (and he might have included the entire Abbott government here) continue to argue that we shouldn’t reduce our coal use until China and other countries do so,” Bloomberg noted. “But that’s like saying, ‘We won’t stop killing our people until you stop killing yours.’ Not only would it be absurd, it would also be economically foolish.”
In Australia, the grim reality facing the coal industry is now affecting promoters of mega coal projects, such as Adani’s Carmichael project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, and the Watermark project in NSW’s Liverpool Plains.
The Adani project has become a pariah, with potential investment partners and international banks walking away from the opportunity to earn millions of dollar in fees for the simple reason that the economics – let alone the environmental impacts – do not stack up.
Still, the Abbott government doesn’t get it. Environment minister Greg Hunt has launched an extraordinary attack on the environmental groups that have fought the Carmichael mine.
Abbott himself told The Australian on Friday that environmental groups were “sabotaging” the coal industry through protests and court action. Which might explain why the Abbott government is keen to support the mining lobby, which has forced a parliamentary inquiry into whether environmental NGO’s should be allowed to receive tax deductible donations.
“As a country we must, in principle, favour projects like this (Carmichael),” the Prime Minister told The Australian. “This is a vitally important project for the economic development of Queensland and it’s absolutely critical for the human welfare literally of tens of millions of people in India.”
Not so much a triumph of hope over reality, but a stunning disregard for environmental impacts and market forces. If Abbott were to put money into Carmichael – as his government has signalled it might, via its northern infrastructure development fund – it would be an act of absolute recklessness, and make even the proverbial lift boy look like an investment genius.