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Russia has been historically associated with oil and gas exports, yet the news somewhat underreports its coal market presence. Although neither the world’s largest coal producer nor exporter, Russia seems to continue with its strategic aim to ramp up coal exports, all the while domestic carbon demand is about to plummet. Step by step, first by getting its spare production capacity ready, now by ensuring appropriate infrastructure solutions are there to transport all the goods, Moscow is laying the groundwork for a large-scale expansion that is about to take place in the mid-2020s. Another story that juggles on the border of the political and economical, East Asian markets and nations take central stage in Russia’s export policy, once again.At first glance, 2019 was not the ideal year for the Russian coal industry. Bumping down from last year’s all-time high, coal production decreased 0.2 percent year-on-year to 439 million tons. Prices both in Europe and Asia have reached multi-year lows this summer, especially the former has seen quotations plummeting amid robust coal-to-gas switch dynamics and market oversupply – both have recovered somewhat in the autumn months, yet Europe witnessed another steep drop this Januarys. Domestic Russian demand for coal was stagnating, too, as coal usage in thermal stations, especially in Southern Siberia where it is predominantly mined, decreased by 3 percent year-on-year all the while coking coal demand remained stagnant. This might seem as a harbinger of future stagnation, yet the industry remains upbeat on Asian demand. In fact, the deeper one digs into Russia’s export plans vis-à-vis East Asia the more interesting it gets.

 Exports of Russian coal in 2019 have risen 1 percent year-on-year – ramping up deliveries to the Asia Pacific region was the most powerful driver of growth, whilst the above stated weak European demand counteracted the Asian drive. The Asian surge has not been all rosy in terms of profitability – the Platts’ FOB Russia Pacific (6300kcal/kg) GAR price averaged 78.10 USD per metric ton in 2019, down 29 percent year-on-year from the 2018 level of 108.70 per metric ton – and consequently, coal exporters’ revenues dropped 10-15 percent from 2018. Yet despite the price weakness which given the equally warm winter of 2019/2020 will persist even further, big producers like SUEK or KRU continue to dream big. Testament to their ambition, both companies have used the 2019 demand languor to modernize their producing assets.

Graph 1. Coal Prices in Europe (the orange-coloured TR API 2 is the CIF ARA price of coal) in 2018-19.

Source: Thomson Reuters.

 Russia’s coal strategy, as ascertained in the nation’s 2035 Energy Strategy, is a long-haul ambition which would not necessarily yield immediate results. In case of coal exports towards the Asia Pacific region, this cannot be done that easily as infrastructure constraints limit producers. As most of oil and gas is now exported via pipelines and coal has become the most important exported commodity in terms of railway throughput (30% of Russian Railways throughput is coal), transportation authorities have been looking into possibilities to expand export capacities. Although mired in delays, the expansion of the Trans-Siberian Railways first to 125mtpa by 2021 and then to 180mtpa by 2024 is Russia’s primordial bid to offer and sell more.

The thing is that Russia’s main production hub in the Kuzbass is roughly equidistant to Western Europe and to East Asia – hence heretofore the export policy maintained a sort of balance between the two directions. Europe, however, was the main reason why global coal demand eventually decreased year-on-year, hence it makes very little sense to place one’s bets on EU markets. The above notwithstanding, the infrastructure squeeze has led the state rail operator, Russian Railways, to offer substantially reduced tariffs on deliveries to Russia’s European ports. One of the least utilized for coal deliveries (some 15 million tons were railed there in 2019), Russia’s Black Sea ports have been witnessing a renaissance of exports as shippers avail themselves of cheap rail tariffs and an increasing takeaway capacity that is bound to reach 50mtpa this year.

Cognizant of the difficulties inherent in relying on European markets amidst a general German-led trend towards ridding EU countries of coal utilization, Russian authorities and companies make no secrets about wanting to garner as big a share of the Asian market as possible. The prime suspect is evident – China accounts for more than half of global coal consumption, in terms of its geographic location very conveniently located in the vicinity of Siberian coal production hubs. Russia is already exporting substantial amounts of coal to China – some 30 million tons per year – yet there remains great potential for an export boost to take place in the upcoming years. The thing is that China has introduced a coal import duty in 2014 – it exempted countries it has a FTA with but Russia was left out.

Dissatisfied with the fact that Australia and Indonesia, the main competitors on the Chinese coal market, enjoy duty-free trade with China, Russian authorities have started to push for a cancellation of the coking and thermal coal duties. Whilst still in its preparatory stage, this move might fully unlock the Chinese market for Russian producers – a boon not only for the Kuznetsk Basin (home to 80 percent of the nation’s output) but also to new East-Siberian projects. The Far East has been demonstrating spectacular growth numbers – a more than 50 percent year-on-year surge in 2019 alone to more than 70 million tons – specifically engineered to grab a bigger share of the Chinese market.

Graph 2. Seaborne Exports of Russian Coal to Asian Markets in 2018-2019.

Source: Thomson Reuters.

All in all, the Russian Energy Ministry expects Russian coal exports to China almost double within the next 10 years, to 55 million tons from their current level of some 30 million tons per year. Yet Russia’s export surge to Asian markets need not end with China – for instance, late November Indian Minister of Steel Industry Dharmendra Pradhan indicated that Indian steelmakers would be “significantly increasing” their coking coal imports from Russia’s Far Eastern ports. Vietnam, too, is a hot market outlet, having tripled its intake of Russian coal on the back of the commissioning of several new coal-fired plants. Even long-term trends propel the nation’s coal industry to turn east – Indonesia (the largest supplier of thermal coal now) will inevitably see its 350mtpa production decline by more than 100mtpa in the upcoming two decades, with the EIA expecting Russia to overtake it as the leading thermal coal exporter within this decade.