Troubling signs for the future of Australia’s giant coal industry

COAL HAS been king in Australia ever since British colonists first spotted the black stuff in coastal cliffs north of Sydney in the 1790s. Its grand epoch may finally be fading. China, Australia’s second-biggest coal customer, after Japan, was reported on February 21st to have imposed delays on coal imports from Australia at the northern port of Dalian, but not on those from other countries. A day earlier Glencore, a Swiss-based company and Australia’s biggest coal miner, announced it would cap coal production at current levels. And, for the first time, an Australian judge has refused to allow a new coal mine because it would have contributed to climate change.

The events have intensified a debate over coal’s future in Australia. Already, coal risked being enveloped in political battles over Australia’s climate policy and the economy’s reliance on China, the country’s biggest trading partner. Mining companies must increasingly grapple with not just green protesters but anxious banks, under pressure from investors to limit financing for new, polluting projects. Some big miners brush off any threat. “It is way too early for us to think that this is some turning point,” says Andrew Mackenzie, the chief executive of BHP, a giant miner based in Melbourne.

Coal is forecast to be Australia’s top export by value this year and...



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