(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
LAUNCESTON, Australia, April 5 (Reuters) - The vast steel sectors of China, Japan and South Korea are bracing for surging coking coal prices after Cyclone Debbie wreaked havoc across the main mining areas of top producer Australia, but their worst fears may not be realised.
Cyclone Debbie hit the northeastern state of Queensland last week as a Category Four storm, the second-strongest rating, causing widespread flooding and damage to infrastructure in the state, which produces about half of the world’s supply of seaborne coking coal.
Steel makers will no doubt be reminded of Cyclone Yasi, a storm in 2011 that knocked out mines, railways and ports in Queensland, causing the loss of around 25 million tonnes of exports and sending the coking coal price to a record of just above $330 a tonne.
Debbie has hit roughly the same area and has caused similar problems, but there are some important differences this time, which suggest that while coking coal prices are likely to spike higher, the rally may not be as pronounced or as extended as it was in 2011.
The main difference is that in 2011 it took a considerable length of time to pump water out of flooded mine pits, assess and repair rail damage and clear export backlogs at ports.
This time the mines appear to have been far better prepared, with top producer BHP Billiton already able to resume operations at some of its pits in the Bowen Basin.
The problem is that while the mines can recover fairly quickly, and are believed to have sufficient stockpiles of mined material, the rail infrastructure may not.
BHP has declared force majeure on shipments, invoking the legal term for when a company is unable to meet obligations due to circumstances beyond its control.
This is because the rail system may take several weeks to fully repair, according to Aurizon, the operator.
Of the four main lines taking coal to ports along the Queensland coast, it’s expected that only one will be operating by next week, the others taking up to four more weeks to come back on line.
In theory, this means the potential impact loss of exports of coking coal from Debbie could be as high as 15 million tonnes.
While this would be below the 25 million tonnes lost because of Yasi in 2011, it’s still a significant number.
ANZ Banking Group commodity analyst Daniel Hynes expects North American coking coal exports will increase in the wake of Debbie, much as they did after Yasi, when they increased by 13 million tonnes.
“The only difference this time is that the impact will be contained within a 5-6 week window,” Hynes said in a research note on Wednesday. “Therefore, we expect prices to surge well above $200 a tonne in coming weeks as buyers become increasingly desperate.”
That desperation is already evident, with coking coal futures in Singapore jumping 44 percent from Friday’s close to end at $225 a tonne on Tuesday.
Dalian Commodity Exchange futures restarted on Wednesday after two days of being closed for holidays, rising as much as 7.2 percent to 1,363.5 yuan ($197.90) a tonne from Friday’s close of 1,271 yuan.
Overall, it appears that the coking coal market in Asia will tighten substantially, but for a matter of weeks rather than the months experienced in 2011.
Cargoes will start to arrive from North America, and it’s possible that Mongolia and Russia can also step up exports.
This is cold comfort for steel makers, who face a scramble for immediate cargoes, but it does mean the Debbie-related price surge is likely to come and go within a matter of weeks, rather than months as occurred when Yasi struck.
The key will be whether Aurizon can repair its rail corridors within, or faster than its current estimates, or whether the damage is worse than already assessed.
Any signs that the rail outages will be longer than expected will put further pressure on coking coal inventories and supplies, and make already nervous steel mills even more anxious.
Editing by Richard Pullin