Tough market conditions hit Richards Bay coal exports

Coal exports through the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) dropped to 72.1mt during calendar 2019 from 73.5mt the previous year mainly as a result of lower demand and difficult marketing conditions.

The RBCT is designed to maximise its throughput efficiencies by handling large “Cape” sized bulk carriers but the number of Cape vessels handled during 2019 dropped to 351 from 372 in 2018 while the number of smaller capacity “Panamax” ships handled rose to 296 from 268.

In addition there was a 2.1% decrease in the average cargo size handled by the terminal to 81,436t (previous year 83,202t) while parcel size (shipments of specific grades and types of coal) dropped 5.6% to 50,562t from 53,587t but the number of parcels loaded per vessel increased 3.8% to 1.6 from 1.55.

According to RBCT CEO Alan Waller this all added up to “challenging operating conditions” for a terminal designed to load large bulk carriers while adverse weather conditions also played a role.

Waller pointed out the RBCT lost the equivalent of 39 days due to weather patterns (high ocean swells and low visibility which make it too dangerous for vessels to enter the port of Richards Bay) compared with 36 days lost in 2018.

Waller said the export target for 2020 was 77mt – the same as for 2019 – but he pointed out the key “swing” factor would be what happened to coal export volumes from the Optimum and Koornfontein collieries which have been shut down for the past two years.

He commented, “ those two collieries have annual entitlement totalling 8mt tons. RBCT user rules allow other RBCT members to utilise that entitlement for their own exports if Optimum/Koornfontein cannot utilise it themselves but we do not know just how much of that amount will be used by the other members.”

Asked what would happen if the Optimum/Koornfontein collieries were to get back into operation under new owners Waller replied, “then it’s game on for us to hit 77mt”.

The RBCT has the installed capacity to export a total of 91mt annually but it has never gotten anywhere near that level since it became available in 2010 with the completion of the Phase 5 expansion. The record export volume set by the terminal was 76.5mt in 2017.

But Waller pointed out the surplus capacity was proving invaluable to RBCT management in dealing with the volume swings in the volatile coal export business which were being experienced on a quarterly basis.

Quarterly statistics reveal a pattern established over recent years where export volumes run well below average during the first quarter of the year but then there is a major “catch up” period in the fourth quarter.

The terminal last year exported at a rate equivalent to 68.5mt/year in the first quarter but at a rate equivalent to 84mt/year in the fourth quarter.

The RBCT handles 98% of total coal exports from South Africa and, during 2019, some 91% of that coal went to Asia with India being by far the largest market. Last year Indian consumers took 41.6mt of the RBCT’s exports while Pakistan took another 12mt.

Waller commented that – with so much coal going to Pakistan and India – the timing of the annual monsoon had become another important factor affecting throughput at the RBCT.