Richards Bay coal exports hit three-decade low

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Richards Bay Coal Terminal on Thursday said it exported 47.21 million tons of coal in 2023, down 6.2% year-on-year, the lowest level since 1992 as the country’s freight rail crisis continues to throttle mineral shipments.

Transnet, South Africa’s state-owned freight rail and port operator, has struggled to haul bulk commodities including coal due to the shortage of locomotives and spares, as well as cable theft and vandalism of its infrastructure.

South Africa’s main coal export terminal expects to export 50 million tons of the fossil fuel in 2024, RBCT CEO Alan Waller told a media briefing.

Shipments through RBCT declined from 50.35 million tons in 2022 and a recent peak of 76.47 million tons in 2017.

RBCT, owned by 13 coal mining companies including Thungela Resources, Exxaro Resources, Seriti Resources, and Glencore’s South African subsidiary, has been operating far below its annual export capacity of 91 million tonnes of coal.

Some companies, such as Thungela have been forced to curb output to match Transnet’s constrained capacity.

Transnet says it working to restore its capacity and targets hauling 60 million tons to port this year, but RBCT believes the turnaround will take longer.

“We understand there is a recovery, but it’s not necessarily going to be as quick as we think it could be. There is uncertainty still,” Waller said.

Asia was once again the main destination for South African coal, accounting for 37.1 million tons or 78.6% of total exports, RBCT data showed. Its share increased from 63% last year when it imported 31.7 million tons.

Shipments to Europe, which surged in 2022 after the European Union banned coal imports from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, declined to 6.1 million tons in 2023, from 14.3 million tons the previous year amid a milder-than-expected winter.