Keywords: coal mining, international coal trade, productivity, power generation, fuel choice
The international coal industry: comments on the paper by David Humphreys and Keith Welham
This comment discusses in more detail one of the primary messages in the paper by David Humphreys and Keith Welham, namely the fundamental shift in the steam coal industry away from security of supply concerns and national focuses towards an international and cost-driven perspective. On the supply side, this has meant an increased focus on mining productivity. By consulting recent research, this comment reviews the sources of productivity growth in the coal industry and discusses the prospects for future improvements. The demand side of the steam coal market has also witnessed fundamental change as electric utilities have become more cost focused. In the 1970s and early 1980s, nuclear was the main competitor to coal, but today the fiercest competition comes from gas. While coal benefits from the favourable economics of existing plants, gas use tends to be cheaper on a total cost basis and it is also environmentally more benign. The competition from gas therefore puts new and different competitive pressures on steam coal. Not only does coal procurement need to become more flexible and diverse; the negative perception of coal as a dirty fuel has to weaken as well.