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Is US coal the dry bulk shipping industry’s saviour?

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World Coal,

US seaborne coal exports have turned years of negative growth around and seem to be climbing for a third quarter in a row, according to a recent report By international shipping association BIMCO. The increase in total volume is predominantly driven by a growing demand from European importers. East Asian buyers have also ramped up their import of US coal, which is beneficial for the dry bulk shipping industry as it generates a substantial number of tonne-miles, relative to other destinations.

BIMCO reported back in December 2016, that the tonne-miles from US coal exports halved over three years due to long-haul routes carrying metallurgical coal to East Asia not operating to the same extent and diminishing demand from Europe. After reaching the lowest levels for exported coal in 3Q16 since 1Q07 in terms of total volumes, US coal exports now look to return to recognisable heights and become a dominant player in global seaborne coal transport once again.


BIMCO’s Chief Shipping Analyst Peter Sand commented: ”A rising US coal trade has a multiplying effect on the dry bulk shipping industry, as it provides some of the longest sailing distances. East Asian importers source 78% of their US coal from Norfolk, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland and thereby accept a journey of up to 45 sailing days at an average speed of 13 knots (14 000 nautical miles).”


US coal exports are up 54% in total volume and 60% in terms of tonne-miles for the first five months of 2017 compared to the same period last year. As the average sailing distance has grown more than total volume, it emphasises how the US has exported more to importers further away, primarily to East Asian destinations.


Europe imports the highest volume while East Asia generates the most tonne-miles


The main importers of US coal for the first five months of 2017 are the Netherlands, India and Japan, importing 34% of all coal exiting the US via the sea. The most influential importers for the dry bulk shipping industry are India, Japan and South Korea, generating 46% of total tonne-miles.

Europe continues to be the largest importer of US coal and has for the first five months of 2017 imported 44% of all US seaborne coal exports. Europe has sourced 4.7 million t more coal from the US in the first five months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, which is an increase of 53%. US coal exports to Europe occupies both the panamax and capesize segment.


The Netherlands have, in the last 10 years, been the main importer of US coal both in Europe and on a global scale. Due to its shorter distance to the US East Coast compared to East Asian buyers, it has in the past 10 years only generated the fifth highest number of tonne-miles.


East Asian importers are the main reason why tonne-miles are growing more than total volume, despite only 19% of total US seaborne coal exports destined for East Asia in 2017. The East Asian imports of US coal surged 113% in the first five months of 2017 compared to 2016, amounting to an increase of 3.1 million t. US coal shipments to East Asia generated 92% more tonne-miles in the first five months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. Japan is the most influential importer in terms of tonne-miles across the board, but it is only the seventh biggest importer on a global scale measured in volumes imported.

The Americas imported an additional 21% of US seaborne coal during the first five months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. This surge in total volume generated an additional 24% tonne-miles. The Americas have so far for 2017, imported 17% of all US coal exported via sea, but due to the geographical proximity to US ports, the Americas only generated 9% of the total tonne-miles.


Higher US coal production but still close to lowest level since 1978

The US have produced 351 million tonnes of coal in the first half of 2017, this is an increase of 16% compared to the same period last year, amounting to an increase of 49 million tonnes. This year-on-year increase does not indicate a high production level compared to years prior to 2016, as the amount of coal produced in 2016 was the lowest level since 1978.

US coal consumption numbers released so far only cover the first four months of 2017, but show an increase of 6% compared to the same period in 2016. The production of US coal rose 16% in the same period. This amounts to a surplus of 32 million t of coal for the first four months.

Peter Sand added: “BIMCO expects Q2 2017 to go beyond the levels seen in Q1 2017 in terms of tonne-miles and deliver the highest second quarter demand in four years. If US coal exports remain high throughout 2017 it will have a solid effect on the global seaborne coal trade and support the overall improvement in the dry bulk shipping industry”.

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