China Folds, Unloads Australian Coal Despite Import Ban Amid Power Crunch

China appears to have folded and unloaded Australian coal shipments despite an unofficial import ban, according to FT, citing multiple commodity analysts. The move emphasizes China’s dire need for coal supplies amid a power crunch with more than half of the country’s provinces rationing power

Nick Ristic, the lead dry cargo analyst at Braemar ACM Shipbroking, said an unspecified number of bulk carrier vessels with Australian coal has been waiting outside Chinese ports since Beijing slapped tariffs and blacklisted commodities from the country last year. He said about 450,000 tons of Australian coal had been unloaded in September. 

A more precise number of bulk carries is five, according to energy research company Kpler, who had the figure at 380,000 tons of Australian thermal coal were unloaded at Chinese ports last month. 

FT makes the case the coal could’ve been resold to another country, but traders said that was unlikely because Chinese authorities cleared the cargos through customs. 

We noted last year that dozens of giant bulk carriers loaded with Australian coal were anchored off several Chinese ports due to a diplomatic spat between Canberra and Beijing. Eventually, Beijing ordered state-owned companies to stop importing Australian coal. 

Global research firm Wood Mackenzie said after November 2020, coal exports to China crashed to “zero.” 

Last year, Beijing’s Australian thermal coal ban proved to be a very misguided measure due to severe power rationings across the country ahead of winter. At least 20 Chinese provinces and regions making up more than 66% of the country’s GDP have announced some form of power cuts. Guangdong province, the southern industrial hub, is slashing ~10% of its peak power demand…

Meanwhile, China’s central government officials “ordered the country’s top state-owned energy companies to secure supplies for this winter at all costs.”

Bloomberg reported Monday China’s Zhejiang province purchased its first shipment of thermal coal from Kazakhstan as it races to stockpile reserves ahead of the winter season.  

Lara Dong, who heads Greater China power and renewables research at IHS Markit, said Beijing’s move to allow five Australian shipments of coal to be processed isn’t a sign of a broader policy reversal.

“I see it as a sign of policy loosening, it doesn’t seem to mean a big difference in coal imports from Australia.,” Dong said. 

She added that it was unknown if increased imports would solve the country’s power crunch. “It’s so expensive now. The government is encouraging imports but who will pay?” she said. 

Contrary to China’s peak carbon emissions in 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality in 2060 promises, those targets may be pushed out as the fossil fuel-hungry country does everything it can to source the dirtiest energy source on Earth amid one of the worst power crunches in decades ahead of the winter season. 

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