Chinese steel mills seek more US coking coal deals

  • Market: Coking coal
  • 12/08/20

Chinese steel producers are keen to buy more US coking coal to replace Australian cargoes blocked by import curbs, giving the first significant boost to this trade flow since China imposed retaliatory tariffs on US coal in 2018.

US coal producer Arch Resources will ship 300,000t of high-volatile A coal from its Leer mine in West Virginia to China under a one-year contract to a buyer, possibly a northeast China steel mill.

"This particular buyer did test out a cargo of Leer coal previously, and they found it quite suitable," a Beijing-based trader said. "Either way, they do not have any other appropriate alternatives at present."

The Argus Australian premium low-volatile coking coal index has a coke strength relativity (CSR) specification of 67-70 CSR, higher than other origins that makes it the preferred coal for Chinese mills. But Chinese mills were verbally told to stop importing Australian coal in early October. Market participants at first expected the curbs would ease when China's import quotas reset in 2021, but fob basis prices have since tumbled as outlooks softened for Australian coal.

Discussions are possibly under way with Chinese buyers for Oak Grove premium hard coking coal with February and March laycans. Chinese importers are also buying US and Canadian coal in spot deals. Arch's spot volumes were also likely fully sold out until April.

"What the Chinese need is a high CSR replacement for Australian coking coal to be blended with low CSR domestic coal, making Leer positive since it has a CSR of more than 65," a Singapore-based trader said.

The Leer coal has a CSR of 67-68, 32-33pc volatile matter, 7-8pc ash and 1.0-1.1pc sulphur.

The higher sulphur content of Leer coal has made it unattractive for many buyers in China because it would not pass customs pollutant inspections standards at most ports, a trader said. But northeast China ports are generally less strict with sulphur content of cargoes, so the buyer is unlikely to face any major hurdles in importing this coal, the trader said.

The Argus assessment for premium hard low-volatile coking coal delivered on a cfr China basis has increased by 16.6pc to $170.85/t cfr since early October when mills were told to stop importing Australian coal. The import curbs have sent US coking coal prices to a record premium over Australian coal. The most recent spot transaction for US premium hard coking coal was $170/t cfr China, more than $20/t above that of Australian premium hard low-volatile coking coal traded at the end of September and well above the fob Australia premium low-volatile hard coking coal index at $103.35.

Top-tier domestic coal in China still prices at a premium to US coal imports at 1,380 yuan/t ($211/t) free-on-rail.

Enquiries for US coking coal continue to be strong, sellers said, although hikes on offers have slowed somewhat in recent weeks. Spot offers for US and Canadian coking coal are still around $180/t cfr China.

China imposed a 25pc tariff on US coal in 2018 but it has since been lifted. China imported 740,500t of coking coal from the US during January-October, a fraction of the 35.1mn t from Australia and the 65.2mn t total intake.


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