Recession cools off Japan's hot market for coal

Expectations of a great Japanese coal rush are going up in smoke.

Optimistic forecasts that it would be consuming from 60 to 100 million tons of steaming coal annually by the end of the century are being revised downward.

In the process, new coal mines in countries like the United States, Australia , and Canada are seeing hopes of big profits from the Japan trade turn to ashes. Japanese demand, in fact, may be only half or less what was previously expected.

Japan's eyes, it seems, were bigger than its stomach, as its appetite proved grossly exaggerated. Recession in several coal-consuming industries here has dampened demand for coal. In turn, this slump could involve hardships for many companies which have developed mines specifically for the anticipated expanding market here.

In the past couple of years, Japanese trading houses and mining companies have been pumping money into foreign thermal coal projects one after another to cope with the expected demand generated by a switch from oil to coal as a prime energy source.

Several projects have already been put on the back burner, however, and industry analysts now see this as a firm pointer for the future.

This has already led to a chorus of indignant protests from government and business in Australia, the country most affected by the cooling Japanese interest at present.

A similar slump is under way for coking coal. A slump in crude steel production amid a prolonged recession has caught steel mills with contracts this year for an estimated 20 million tons of coal more than they need.

With every available bit of storage space overflowing with coking coal, the Japanese are racking thier brains for solutions. Scheduled shipments are being delayed at loading ports. Ships at sea are being told to go slow to provide a few days of breathing space.

The steel mills are also putting pressure on exporting mines to accept drastic reductions to their contract amounts. For the United States, that currently means a cut of some 30 percent in agreed tonnage.

This slump in coking coal could be a temporary phenomenon (although it is expected to affect fiscal 1983 contract negotiations) that will generally work itself out as the global economy picks up and everyone starts buying Japanese steel in something approaching normal volume again.

But no such optimism applies to steaming coal. Last year, Japan imported 12.5 million tons of thermal coal, including 1.12 million tons from the United States (up from 600,000 tons in 1980).

This seemed merely the beginning of a fresh long reign by ''King Coal.'' The governmental overall energy council last year estimated consumption would rise to 66 million tons by 1990. Other private estimates spoke of 100 million tons by the turn of the century, the bulk of it having to be imported.

To cope, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in October 1980 set up a New Energy Development Organization (NEDO) to offer special financing for overseas coal developments.

But demand has not kept pace with early optimism. Electric power companies, the main user, have reduced by 6 million kilowatts their estimate of coal-fired electric power generation in 1990.

In the recession, power demand is not increasing as was expected, making utility companies wary of embarking on the construction of new ''clean'' coal-fired plants or conversion of existing oil-fired plants, both involving heavy expense in antipollution equipment.

Another potential big customer, the cement industry, is also not faring well due to reduced housing starts and smaller expenditures for public works.

In fiscal 1981, NEDO advanced about $12 million to finance 19 overseas mine projects. None of this year's quota of $18 million has been used, resulting in the budget for next year being slashed 63 percent - highly unusual for energy-related budget requests.

The sudden evaporation of Japanese enthusiasm comes at a time when Western US states like Utah and Colorado were gearing up for a big trade bonanza. There is only one joint development so far - in western Colorado (due to come on stream in 1987 at 3.6 million tons of coal annually for export to Japan) - but others were in the pipeline.

One barrier to expanded exports has been the higher price of western US coal due to transportation problems and limited port-loading facilities on the Pacific Coast. The Japanese and US governments last July agreed on a joint survey of ways to overcome the bottleneck, with the Tokyo government offering part of the improvement financing. This bottleneck could now be eased due to lack of Japanese customers.

Business feeling here is summed up by one mining company whose spokesman observed: ''The coal won't rot in the ground. . . . We can afford to wait.''

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