Coal in Australia, Part 2: Queensland

Part two of a series looking at Australia’s coal industry. This post profiles Queensland, Australia’s largest coal producing state.

This is the second in a series of posts providing an overview of Australia’s coal industry. You can read part one here.

Victoria has two coal mines. Western Australian also has two. 

Queensland has 57.

Queensland is the largest coal producer in Australia. It is home to 57 coal mines, 50 of which produced coal in 2018-19. 

Of these 57 mines, six are located in southern Queensland – the region south of Bundaberg. Coal in this region is primarily thermal coal (used to make electricity), much of which is used to power the four local coal power stations: Kogan Creek, Tarong, Tarong North and Millmerran. The coal from this region is sourced from two coal basins: the Surat Basin and the much smaller Tarong Basin.

Queensland’s 51 other coal mines are all located in central Queensland, from the Dawson mine in the south located inland from Gladstone, all the way up to the Collinsville coal mine located half way between Mackay and Townsville. Almost all these coal mines are located in what is one of the largest coal basins in the world: the Bowen Basin. The Bowen Basin is a huge deposit of thermal and metallurgical coal (used in steel-making), stretching north to south for 600km and east to west for 200km at its widest point. This huge area is dotted with around 50 coal mines that supply a large proportion of the world’s exported coal.

Another couple of mines are located in the comparatively tiny Callide Basin, where only thermal coal is produced. To the west of the Bowen Basin lies the Galilee Basin, another huge deposit of primarily thermal coal. As of yet, there are no active coal mines in this basin although it is home to a host of huge proposed projects.

There are a range of plans for new coal mines throughout Queensland, with major developments planned in the Bowen Basin as well as the Galilee Basin. All of Queensland’s advanced coal projects are located in these two basins (according to the Queensland Government’s definition of ‘advanced’).

Central Queensland is also home to four coal power stations (Gladstone, Stanwell, Callide B, Callide C) located in a triangle between the regional cities of Rockhampton, Gladstone and Callide. 

In total, Queensland’s eight coal power stations supplied 71% of the state’s electricity in 2019 and their capacity is significantly larger than both Victoria’s and Western Australia’s (but smaller than New South Wales).

Queensland is a massive coal exporter – the vast majority of coal that is mined in the state is shipped overseas. Coal from southern Queensland is transported by rail to the Fisherman Islands coal export terminal just north of Brisbane. Coal from the Bowen and Callide Basins is transported by rail to one of three locations: 

  • The Wiggins Island, RG Tanna or Barney Point coal terminals in Gladstone.
  • The Hay Point or Dalrymple Bay coal terminals near Mackay.
  • The Abbot Point coal terminal near the town of Bowen.

Queensland primarily exports metallurgical coal, making up 72% of the state’s coal exports. Overall, Queensland’s total coal exports increased by 3% between 2014-15 and 2018-19.

78% of Queensland’s coal exports go to just six countries: China (21%), Japan (20%), India (16%), South Korea (12%), Taiwan (5%) and Singapore (5%). Coal imports and exports can vary significantly from year to year but collectively, Queensland’s exports to these six countries have declined by 4% since 2014-15 (refer to Table 1). So if exports to Queensland’s six biggest customers have declined by 4%, what explains the 3% increase in total coal exports from 2014-15 to 2018-19?

Table 1. The six largest export markets for Queensland coal in 2018-19.

Market2014-2015 QLD coal exports (tonnes)2018-2019 QLD coal exports (tonnes)Change (%)% of QLD coal exports
China 52,886,82147,874,649-9%21%

Behind these six countries, which all imported over 10 million tonnes of coal from Queensland in 2018-19, there are 12 other countries that imported between 1 and 10 million tonnes. These 12 countries bought 17% of Queensland’s coal. See the full list in Table 2.

Table 2. The twelve export markets that received between one and ten million tonnes of Queensland coal in 2018-19.

Market2014-2015 QLD coal exports (tonnes)2018-2019 QLD coal exports (tonnes)Change (%)
Hong Kong –6,001,758N/A
South Africa992,8611,167,95218%

There are four markets that stand out with significantly increased coal demand over the last four years: Poland, Malaysia, Hong Kong and most importantly, Vietnam. Poland’s 92% increase in coal imports from Queensland is intriguing, as Poland is practically the last pro-coal country in northern or western Europe. Malaysian coal demand has increased by over 200%. Despite these increases, Poland and Malaysia still don’t consume that much Queensland coal. 

Hong Kong’s imports have gone from zero to 6 million tonnes in just two years, a huge increase, but I wonder if this is due to an accounting change.

The most important change is in Vietnam, which has gone from a very small coal customer to Queensland’s seventh biggest coal customer behind Taiwan. It is no wonder Vietnam has become the favourite child of the Australian coal lobby in the last couple of years. If these trends continue (and they may not) Vietnam may soon overtake Singapore and Taiwan to become the fourth largest market for Queensland coal.

But with Vietnam the only significant growth market for Queensland coal, arguments in favour of new coal mines are misguided from an economic perspective (as well as being criminal from a climate perspective). Vietnam has had a central role in countering the decline in coal demand from Queensland’s other customers. If Vietnam were excluded from the data, Queensland’s 3% increase in total coal exports from 2014-15 to 2018-19 would actually have been a 0.5% decline. The sooner Vietnam’s coal demand peaks, the sooner demand for Queensland’s coal will flat-line and eventually decline.

Queensland’s coal exports are likely to be more resilient than other markets (including New South Wales) due to their high reliance on metallurgical coal whilst having a relatively low reliance on thermal coal. Thermal coal is in structural decline and this decline is likely to accelerate in the next few years as the world transitions to renewable energy in the electricity sector. Metallurgical coal is used in steel-making and its decline will likely take longer to come to pass.

For an excellent map of Queensland’s coal sector, refer to the Queensland Government’s Queensland Coal Map Fourteenth Edition.

Much of the data in this post was calculated from the Queensland Government’s Coal industry review statistical tables 2018-19.

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