Global energy crisis: China forced to take Aussie coal despite icy relations, Putin blames green energy transition for 'hysteria'

It comes ahead of COP26.
It comes ahead of COP26. Photo credit: Reuters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the transition to green energy and low investment in the extraction industries on Tuesday for what he said were "hysteria and some confusion" on European markets where energy prices are surging.

Russia, a major oil and gas exporter, is facing pressure to commit to a "net zero" emissions target ahead of the United Nations' Climate Change Conference (COP26), which starts in Glasgow next month and is aimed at agreeing new policies to fight climate change.

Putin has not yet said whether he will attend.

He told a government meeting on Tuesday that it was vital that the green transition happened smoothly and criticised what he described as "unbalanced decisions" and "drastic steps".

"You see what is happening in Europe. There is hysteria and some confusion in the markets. Why? Because no one is taking it seriously," he said.

"Some people are speculating on climate change issues, some people are underestimating some things, some are starting to cut back on investments in the extractive industries. There needs to be a smooth transition," he said.

He called for the sustainable development of the oil, gas and coal sectors and said it was important that was not neglected. 

China

It comes as China releases Australian coal from bonded storage, despite a nearly year-long unofficial import ban on the fuel, and it scrambles to ease a national power crunch stemming from a coal shortage, traders familiar with the matter said.

The power crisis in the world's top consumer of coal comes as strong demand from manufacturers, industry and households has pushed prices to record highs and triggered widespread curbs.

An estimated one million tonnes of Australian coal have stayed in bonded warehouses along China's coast for months, uncleared by customs after Beijing's unofficial ban last October, a trading executive said.

"Some of the Australian coal stuck at Chinese ports started to be released at the end of last month...though many of those (cargoes) had already been diverted to markets like India," said the trader, based in eastern China.

A second trader said the release from bonded storage would start this week.

Top economic planner the National Development and Reform Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While China has urged top miners to boost output and told power operators to step up coal imports in "an orderly manner" so as to ease the supply squeeze, it has refrained from directly resuming imports from Australia, formerly its number two supplier after Indonesia.

However, at one million tonnes, or the equivalent of just one day of China's coal imports, the stocks release will do little to quench the market's thirst for coal.

"Without resuming Australian coal imports, the supply shortage will be here to stay for some time, as it takes time to boost domestic production after nearly 5 years of output curbs," said a third Beijing-based trader.

"I am not optimistic. The shortage will last at least through the fourth quarter and possibly till after February or March, when the heating season ends."

Exports from other key suppliers, such as Russia and Mongolia, have been curtailed by limited rail capacity, while shipments from Indonesia have been hindered by rainy weather, traders said.

That has led utility operators such as eastern China's Zhejiang Energy to bring in the first thermal coal imports from Kazakhstan on Monday, following its first imports of U.S. thermal coal in June and July.

China imported 197.69 million tonnes in the first eight months of 2021, down 10% on the year. But August coal imports rose by more than a third on tight domestic supplies.

To ease the supply strain, China State Railway Group pledged on Tuesday to allot more freight capacity to ensure coal inventories sufficient for 14.4 days of use at 363 power plants with direct rail access, state media said.

European Union

European Union governments are embroiled in talks this week on whether the surge in energy prices requires a coordinated response, as leaders weigh the potential fallout for Europe's green transition and consumers facing the winter heating season.

EU leaders will discuss record natural gas prices on Tuesday evening and the 27 member states' environment ministers will debate their response on Wednesday.

"The situation is becoming critical. High prices are both threatening the competitiveness of the European economy and will dramatically affect the budgets of small consumers and households," Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in a letter to other EU leaders ahead of their meeting.

The soaring costs have divided countries over how to respond, and whether Brussels should intervene.

Those pushing for EU action include Spain, whose proposals include a new bloc-wide system for countries to jointly buy gas, and France, which wants to change EU regulation to de-link the price of electricity from gas prices and tie it to the average cost of production in each EU state.

Luxembourg, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic have also suggested a range of EU interventions for ministers to debate on Wednesday.

The European Commission will publish a guide for how countries can respond to price spikes on Oct. 13.

Not all are convinced EU intervention is needed to tackle what could be a short-lived problem. EU regulators expect gas market conditions to ease in the spring.

"It's clear this issue affects everyone in Europe and we need an answer," one EU diplomat said. "The question is whether the biggest member states, particularly Germany, believe this answer has to be sought in structural market reform."

While some countries have introduced emergency subsidies and tax breaks in response to surging electricity prices, Germany, Europe's biggest energy market, has not.

Energy costs have skyrocketed just as EU countries prepare to negotiate a raft of new policies to fight climate change, a crisis that itself cut power supplies this summer when floods swept through Germany and Belgium.

Brussels says the energy price crunch should spur a faster green transition to reduce countries' exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices. But some governments, including Spain, have warned that high energy bills could erode public support for ambitious climate policies, if voters blame those measures.

Environment ministers will debate some climate proposals on Wednesday, including plans to phase out combustion engine car sales by 2035, in talks likely to expose where the biggest fault lines lie. 

Reuters