In the dusty grey hills of Shanxi province, China’s coal heartland, a valley of coal mines is silent. Driving towards a coking coal mine that has been idle since 2009, Laby Wu, chief financial officer of Puda Coal, observes: “A year ago this road would have been full of coal trucks.”

The mine shafts have been closed because of the giant coal consolidation project that has swept through Shanxi during the past two years. It is starting to spread to neighbouring coal-producing regions as well, part of a government reorganisation that has had far-reaching implications not only for China, but also for global coal markets.

When China, the world’s largest coal producer and consumer, suddenly became a net importer of thermal coal in 2009 on the back of Beijing’s clampdown on illegal and unsafe mining in Shanxi, the shift helped propel global thermal coal prices. Today, China’s own production of coal – and the challenges to get it to where it is needed – is increasingly pivotal for global coal markets. This year, miners and Asia-based utilities settled the annual contracts for 2011-2012 at a record high of $130 a tonne, up 32.6 per cent from $98 a tonne of 2010-2011.

Chinese coal spot prices have been rising steadily this year, and the benchmark Bohai Rim steam coal index hit Rmb808 a tonne April 27, up from Rmb774 per tonne on January 26, immediately before new year in China. Traders say the domestic spot market is very tight right now, and Chinese officials have warned that some provinces could experience electricity shortages in the hot summer months when people turn on air-conditioning.

However the long-term picture might not be quite as bullish. Large rail infrastructure projects in China are poised to bring fresh sources of coal supplies online, and at the same time the consolidation programme will give policymakers in Beijing more say about how and where coal is produced.

These projects have left the global coal industry divided over whether China will be a net importer of thermal coal in the long term, supporting high prices and lifting the share price of miners such as London-listed Xstrata and Bumi, or whether the country will be self-sufficient as it is increasingly able to tap plentiful domestic reserves.

Until recently, the debate was heavily skewed in favour of long-term imports and high prices. But more recently a growing minority has started to present a bearish case as Beijing acts to ease transport bottlenecks and production increases once more after the government-driven consolidation in Shanxi comes to an end.

“With expansion in the north and west part of China we will see more supply. But the major problem is not production, it is transportation – how to move the coal from the coal-producing regions to the coal-consuming regions,” says Bonnie Liu, coal analyst at Macquarie in Shanghai.

“By 2015, if all the rail expansion comes on time, China should solve the logistics bottleneck, at least in theory.”

The new rail lines will allow Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia provinces to ship more coal to the rest of the China. According to Li Hua, chief researcher at the Ministry of Railroads, the amount of coal transported by rail could grow by 50 per cent in the next five years, from 2bn tonnes in 2010 to 3bn tonnes in 2015. That would make Chinese domestic coal less expensive, because rail transport is much cheaper than road transport.

“We believe that coal prices, especially for steam [ie. thermal] coal, will start to suffer from downward pressure in renminbi terms after 2015, following the strong ramp-up of new railway lines scheduled to be added over the 12th five-year period,” said a recent note from Deutsche Bank.

Also set to have a big impact is China’s domestic coal mining “consolidation” programme, which aims to shut small private mines and to form a handful of state-owned coal giants. The government wants to reduce the role of the private miners known as meilaoban¸ or coal bosses, and to improve safety by closing old mines and by improving standards at existing pits. The programme contributed to the coal import boost of 2009 and 2010 because many collieries were closed while the government reorganised their ownership.

The story of Puda coal is typical of how the process works: New York-listed Puda was appointed by the government to acquire several mines that were formerly privately owned. Once the old owner has agreed on a price, the new owner is responsible for redesigning and improving the mine (a process that has been a boon to suppliers of mine safety equipment).

In Shanxi province, the consolidation programme launched in 2009 caused coal production to fall by 10 per cent in the first three quarters of the year, forcing a 171 per cent increase in coal imports in China. Today, the consolidation process is wrapping up in Shanxi – Ms Wu says their coking coal mine has a deadline to begin production by the end of this year.

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