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China's coal price disturbances: observations, explanations, and potential implications for global energy economies

Authors: 
Yang C-J, X Xuan, RB Jackson
Year: 
2012
Journal: 
Energy Policy
Journal Volume/Pages: 
51:720-727

Since China decontrolled coal prices, its coal price has risen steadily and been unusually volatile. In 2011 in particular, high coal prices and capped electricity prices in China discouraged coal-fired power generation, triggering widespread power shortages. We suggest that these coal-price disturbances could be symptomatic of a major change in pricing dynamics of global fossil-fuel markets, with increasing correspondence between coal and oil prices globally. Historically, global coal prices have generally been more stable and lower than oil and natural gas prices on a per-heat basis. In recent years, however, coal prices have been increasingly volatile worldwide and have tracked other fossil fuel prices more closely. Meanwhile, the recent development of unconventional gas has substantially decoupled U.S. natural gas and oil prices. Technically, low U.S. natural gas prices, with potential fuel switching from coal to gas in the electricity sector, could drive U.S. domestic coal prices lower. However, this effect is unlikely to counteract the overall trend in increasing coal consumption globally. China’s market size and unique, partially-controlled energy system make its reform agenda a key force in the global economy. Policymakers in the U.S., E.U. and elsewhere should monitor China’s economic reform agenda to anticipate and respond to changes accompanying China’s increasing importance in the global energy economy.

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