July 13, 2020 / 5:32 AM / a month ago

COLUMN-Adani claims Carmichael coal win, but it's a pyrrhic victory built on subsidies: Russell

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Clyde Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, July 13 (Reuters) - Lucas Dow, the outgoing chief executive of Adani Enterprises' Australian operations, signed off with a vigorous defence of the company's controversial Carmichael coal mine, and a spray at the venture's numerous opponents.

Perhaps Dow is justified in having a go at his detractors, and it is no small feat for the Indian company to actually be constructing the Carmichael mine, in the frontier Galilee basin in Queensland state.

"Our ability to see off the activists' challenge rested to a large ­extent on the common sense of everyday Australians who could see through the myths the activists used to demonise Adani," Dow wrote in an article published by The Australian newspaper on July 10.

Many thought that Adani would be forced to abandon the project in the face of unrelenting opposition by environmental and community groups, the lack of lenders willing to finance the development and a series of legal challenges.

The above list doesn't include what would appear to be worsening economics for the mine, given the collapse of thermal coal prices in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has pummelled economies across the world.

The news that Adani is now pushing ahead with construction of the mine and its associated rail infrastructure, at a cost estimated at more than A$2 billion ($1.4 billion), will no doubt be seen by the coal industry as evidence the polluting fuel has a viable future despite increasingly cheaper renewable energy.

"The reality is that coal and renewables are needed to provide a sustainable energy mix," Dow wrote in the article.

It's here where Dow's arguments start to fray, and the more Adani's Carmichael mine is examined, the more it becomes apparent that it is likely to be an outlier, rather than a template for future developments.

Much of the Carmichael mine's finances are shrouded in secrecy, but it appears clear that it can only work with a variety of subsidies from three different governments.

Firstly, the government of Queensland state is believed to be considering a holiday of some sorts on royalty payments, which Adani would ordinarily have to make on every tonne of coal mined.

The Queensland government missed its own deadline for deciding on royalties last year, and hasn't made an announcement on any deal as yet.

The Indian government is allowing Adani to build a new coal-fired power plant, known as Godda, where the coal from Carmichael is slated to be burned.

The plant will located in a special economic zone, meaning Adani will be exempt from certain charges and taxes, and coal import duties.

For example, there is a 400 rupee ($5.32) a tonne tax on coal in India, meaning that if Godda imports its planned seven million tonnes a year, the annual saving will be around $37.2 million, or more than $1.1 billion over a 30-year lifespan.

Thirdly, the bulk of the power from Godda is to be sold to neighbouring Bangladesh at a price believed to be well in excess of the rates that Bangladesh could buy power from India on the open market.

What the Carmichael mine shows is that if enough subsidies are granted, even projects that shouldn't be viable can be sustained.

WHO BENEFITS?

So, who will ultimately benefit from the Carmichael mine?

Certainly, there will be more than 1,500 direct jobs created in the construction phase, according to Adani's Dow, which will provide much needed employment as Australia tries to emerge from the coronavirus.

But the ongoing jobs will be substantially fewer, and if there is no, or little, royalty taxes to be paid, then it's hard to argue that Australia as a whole will benefit.

Given the coal mine is unlikely to be profitable at current prices, or indeed at any future higher coal price, as Adani will be able to claim deductions for much of its life, it's also unlikely Carmichael will ever pay much in the way of federal company tax.

In India, there too will be jobs from construction and ongoing operations, but seemingly very little in the way of revenue for the state.

However, there will be the pollution from burning the 10 million tonnes of coal that Carmichael is slated to produce initially when planned output commences in 2021.

For Bangladesh, the project looks even less advantageous, with the price it is believed to be paying well in excess of what it could pay for alternative electricity sources.

Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at the pro-renewables Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, estimates that Bangladesh will pay around the equivalent of about 6 rupees (8 U.S. cents) per kilowatt hour, while the price of buying power from India on the open market would be around 3 rupees.

Ultimately, the only real beneficiary of any scale from the Carmichael coal mine is Adani, which will be able to extract the value of the subsidies while ensuring that what revenue is available accrues to the company.

Of course, Lucas Dow didn't mention any of the subsidies in his farewell article, nor did he explain how the economics stack up and who benefits beyond the relatively modest number of workers employed to build the mine.

But it's more likely that Carmichael turns out to be a pyrrhic victory for the coal industry, as opposed to the harbinger of future success. (Editing by Richard Pullin)

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