Speculation over a fourth-quarter benchmark settlement near $200/mt in the Asian seaborne coking coal market has Central Appalachian sources talking of strengthening Central Appalachian thermal prices through the winter, with pricing potentially approaching $70/st.
News on Oct. 10 of a Q4 mid-vol deal at $200/mt between Peabody Energy of Australia and Nippon Steel of Japan raised eyebrows. Sides in Asia are still negotiating a Q4 price, and the Peabody-Nippon deal could point to a settlement at $200/mt, or at least much closer to that figure than many have estimated.
One West Virginia CAPP producer heavy into the international markets said a month ago Asian buyers were looking for a Q4 settlement at $155/mt but had recently increased the offer to $180/mt.
The producer said a price of $200/mt would be “incredibly higher” than anticipated.
“No doubt the market is trending up, but a number like that, if we see a settlement at about $200/mt, it means you really have to think that you’ll see higher prices than expected through 2017,” the producer said.
While Asian coking prices usually have little effect on CAPP thermal figures, this year there is a much greater connection between the markets. Historically, high prices in Asia increase prices for US met exports to Europe, which holds true today. But what has changed in 2016 is coal supply.
Extreme production cuts in the eastern US this year have limited available thermal and met tonnage. A rise in export met pricing months ago came at a greater pace and ahead of a rise in thermal pricing as summer began. Producers took advantage of the met increase and sold thermal tons that could be blended into the met market.
Those thermal tons are not coming back, producers continue to say, as coal companies churn out tonnage under contract with no desire to increase production. US Energy Information Administration data shows CAPP production is down almost 30% year to date, a drop of about 25 million st.
“Unless you have a committed long-term deal at a good price, you’re not looking to mine extra tons,” one Virginia-based CAPP producer said. “Even for a good quarterly deal, it’s going to cost you to open back up mines and get production going again. You can’t do that unless you know you’re making it back and then some.”
Low thermal supply
Pricing for CAPP CSX-quality coal (12,500 Btu/lb, 1.6 lbs SO2/MMBtu) has increased into the mid- to upper-$50/st range and has held steady for weeks despite a drop in the kind of demand seen when summer heat blanketed the US.
Brokers and producers alike have said a dwindling CAPP supply has and will keep pricing steady through the fall shoulder season and noted the recent hike in natural gas prices to well above $3/MMBtu should reinforce the trend.
Sources also said utilities are preparing for coal increases during the winter and starting to run scenarios on coal burn with CAPP pricing in the $60s/st.
“A lot of things are pointing in the right direction for CAPP thermal to strengthen,” the Virginia producer said. “We were worried about the shoulder season, but if gas stays up at, hits $3.50 to $4, then even some CAPP coal is in the money to burn.
“If we have a cold winter, I can see coal see coal prices knocking at $70/st.”