Richards Bay Coal Terminal: Picture: BLOOMBERG
Richards Bay Coal Terminal: Picture: BLOOMBERG

Three-million fewer tonnes of coal were exported from the Richard’s Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) in 2018 as global demand for South African product weakened in response to high prices.

In a briefing on the annual performance for 2018 on Thursday, RBCT reported coal exports of 73.47-million tonnes for 2018 —4% less than the 76.47-million tonnes exported in 2017 and falling short of a previously-stated target of 77-million tonnes. On average the terminal received 26 trains a day in 2018 compared with 27 a day in 2017.

The reduction in exports is not because of any operational issues at the terminal but, rather, is a reflection of weaker global demand, said CEO Alan Waller. “Whatever has been railed has been shipped. [The reason for lower exports] is global demand; it's market dynamics,” he said.

Xavier Prévost, senior coal analyst at XMP Consulting, said the weaker demand was because South African coal index prices had been marginally higher than those of other coal producing countries such as Colombia and Australia in 2018.

The Richard’s Bay terminal, which is owned by 14 major coal-mining companies, is one of the largest such facilities in the world and has an export capacity of 91-million tonnes. Coal exports are a significant foreign-currency earner for SA.

Nearly 82% of the coal leaving RBCT was delivered to Asia in 2018, with India being the largest market. Africa received 8% of the export coal and Europe procured 10.1%.

While the global demand is out of its control, RCBT has been hard at work to increase efficiencies. In December, the terminal achieved an export record of 8.12-million tonnes, in spite of a derailment of 51 wagons on the Transnet coal line on December 21. 

Changing weather patterns also caused port closures for 36 days. Although it’s an improvement on the 38 days lost 2017, RBCT chair Nosipho Siwisa-Damasane said it showed that weather conditions were a challenge that appeared set to stay.

The past few years have seen abnormal winds and rains causing swells that make it difficult to bring vessels into the terminal.

“It seems to be a global issue. Terminals are losing days to weather,” Siwisa-Damasane said. “It’s probably going to be a new norm.”

RBCT also has a four-million tonne allocation for junior coal miners under its Quattro scheme but only 2.5-million tonnes, or 60%, were utilised in 2018. This is, however, an improvement on the 2-million tonnes exported by junior miners in 2017.

Jabu Mdaki, GM of operations at RBCT, said the scheme was undersubscribed and only 13 junior miners were actively using the allocation. He said new applicants were being assessed.