NEWCASTLE coal exports totalled 158.4 million tonnes in a COVID-ridden 2020, only slightly down on the 162.1 million tonnes recorded last year by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Coal prices have recovered substantially, with the spot price of top-quality Newcastle thermal coal rising more than $US20 ($25) a tonne in a month to hit $US82.30 ($105.70) in the week before Christmas, according to the latest edition of the weekly Australian Coal Report.
Port Waratah Coal Services, which operates terminals at Carrington and Kooragang Island, confirmed it had shipped 105.9 tonnes during 2020, a fall of 4.2 per cent on its 2019 total.
Newcastle Coal Infrastructure Group, which runs the port's third terminal, also on Kooragang Island, had been on track to post a record year.
But the loss of a shiploader during a wild November storm reduced its total output to 52.5 million tonnes, which was still more than the 51.2 million tonnes (ABS figures) in 2019.
Critics including the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis say that thermal coal - the main product exported from Newcastle and burned in power stations - is in "terminal decline".
Read also: Critical minerals exports of the future
IEEFA said before Christmas that a spate of "net-zero carbon emissions" pledges from major global steelmakers mean that coking coal would also suffer as steelmakers found other ways to provide the heat needed to make steel.
From a federal government perspective, the latest December 2020 edition of the Resources and Energy Quarterly from the Office of the Chief Economist, says thermal prices have stabilised in the final three months of the year because of production cuts in major exporters - including Australia, which it says is the world's second-largest thermal coal exporter.
Stronger demand from Asian customer nations as they emerged from COVID "containment measures" was also an influence in lifting prices, the Quarterly said.
PWCS chief executive Hennie du Plooy said the year was "a strong one" given the challenges of COVID. Mr du Plooy said 90 per cent of shipments through PWCS were bound for Asian nations, led by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Malaysia and Thailand.
"China's consumption has fluctuated over the years and this year was a destination for 9 per cent of coal exports through PWCS, while exports to India, Malaysia and Thailand grew compared to previous years," Mr du Plooy said.
A breakdown of PWCS shipping shows the 105.9 million tonnes was carried on 1192 vessels (compared with 110.5 million tonnes on 1226 ships in 2019).
The average size of the shipment was 88,852 tonnes, compared with 90,204 in 2019.
The chief economist's report said spot prices out of Newcastle averaged $US57 ($73) in 2020 and were expected to rise to an average of $US65 ($83.40) in 2021-22.
Australian thermal coal exports - which are dominated by Newcastle - have been worth more than $20 billion a year in recent years, but the chief economist is predicting earnings below this figure for the coming years.
The report says Chinese domestic coal prices have surged to twice the cost of imported Australian coal. It confirms "uncertainty" caused by "unofficial" Chinese moves against Australia.
The story Newcastle coal exports down slightly on 2019 but prices up strongly in recent weeks first appeared on Newcastle Herald.