SA coal exports to increase in 2021 as state-owned Transnet improves rail capacity

Freight Train

COAL exports through the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) dropped to 70.2 million tons (Mt) during calendar 2020 from 72.2Mt in 2019 so declining to throughput levels last seen in 2013.

Despite this RBCT CEO, Alan Waller, commented he was happy with that performance pointing out the terminal had performed well despite the Covid-19 pandemic and had shipped all the coal that was railed to it from the 65 South African collieries which supply the export market.

Last year’s export target was 77Mt and terminal management has set that tonnage level again as the target for 2021. One of the reasons for missing last year’s estimate was that business rescue proceedings over the Optimum Colliery were not concluded meaning the company did not resume exports.

It is still not clear whether Optimum will resume exports this year. Asked whether the RBCT management was being unrealistic in setting such a high target Waller replied it was linked to the available capacity of Transnet Freight Rail to rail the coal to Richards Bay.

He added certain shareholders of the RBCT had the ability to export coal at much higher levels than initially planned in terms of their allocations at a throughput rate of 91Mt (the RBCT’s nameplate capacity) if other shareholders decide not to utilise their full allocations.

Breaking down last year’s exports showed that, yet again, the Asian market dominated demand accounting for 64.3Mt – equivalent to 92% – of total RBCT exports with India taking 36.9Mt and Pakistan 12.8Mt. The remaining coal volumes went to customers in Africa who took 5% and Europe who took 3%.

Waller highlighted the re-appearance of demand from China as a new feature of the business but was unable to give an estimate on how much coal could be supplied from the RBCT to China this year.

He said 654,000 tons of coal had been shipped to China last year which was the first time that the RBCT had supplied coal to China since 2014 when some 2.5Mt were exported there. He commented the Chinese trade was “very erratic” and that he had “absolutely no idea” over how much coal Chinese customers might take from the RBCT this year.

The latest RBCT results show that the Quattro coal export scheme – which is intended to help black empowered junior coal miners export through the terminal – is still not performing properly despite showing a modest increase in export volumes in 2020 over 2019.

The scheme reserves an amount of 4Mt/year of export capacity at the RBCT to be used by junior miners selected to participate through a process run by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE).

During 2019, only 1.9Mt was exported in terms of the scheme and this rose marginally to 2.1Mt during 2020.

This time last year Waller was optimistic that volumes would increase because of progress made with the structure and implementation of the CITT (the Coal Industry Task Team overseen by the DME)  process.

“Given the challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic it’s not a bad performance, but it’s certainly not at a level that the RBCT would like it to be.

Waller was hopeful last year that the full 4Mt of Quattro volumes would be allocated by the CITT but that still has not happened with currently only 2.7Mt being allocated.