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London — Growing export demand for US coking coal has supported prices, and rising shipment volumes into India, Brazil and Europe including Turkey have been highlights so far in 2018, according to an analysis by S&P Global Platts.

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While Brazil took the lead in US exports of coking coal at over 5 million mt over the first eight months of the year, US exports of coking coal to India surged to 4.1 million mt between January to August.

This was almost double the quantity of the year-ago period, according to US Census data. India has also stepped up purchases of US thermal coal.

India is on a drive to triple its steel output by 2030, via integrated steelmaking plants, and a government-led policy has stressed the need to expand and diversify its coking coal supply.

Steel demand in India is expected to track GDP at 7%-plus annual growth rates, as public spending on infrastructure and affordable housing supports demand for steel, Citi's Asia commodities strategist Tracy Liao said in a report.

"All new capacity additions are Basic Oxygen Furnace capacities which should lead to strong demand for coking coal imports in the medium term," the report published in August said.

The Netherlands, home to Tata Steel IJmuiden and ports serving steel plants in Germany and the Benelux region, saw US export coking coal volumes spike. The exports rose to 3.85 million mt over January-August, from 1.96 million mt in the year-ago period.

Europe and Turkey was the destination for 17 million mt of US coking coal exports over January-August, up 20% on the year earlier period.

JAPAN RISE

Japan took on over half a million tons more US coking coal over January-August, at 3.55 million mt, than the year-ago period.

Much of the increased quantity to Japan was supplied through Baltimore, used to ship mainly northern Appalachian met coal such as low-vol, mid-vol, high-vol A and crossover higher sulfur met coals.

On a fiscal year basis -- often used for accounting and contract periods in Japan and other nations -- April to August US shipments to Japan were steady year on year at 1.99 million mt.

US low-vol HCC prices have sat in a $170-$200/mt FOB range so far this year, while prices in 2017 were volatile, spiking above $200/mt in April and falling to average at around $145/mt in June.

Seaborne demand for US thermal coal has also picked up considerably this year. Higher thermal coal prices fueling US exports have added to congestion at ports.

Through August, US bituminous coal exports totaled 27 million mt, up 41% year on year. The volumes annualize at 40.6 million mt, which would be the highest total since US bituminous coal exports peaked in 2012.

The increase in thermal exports has been driven primarily by Asia, and specifically India, which has increased US imports to replace high sulfur petcoke.

The Indian government has been working to restrict petcoke consumption within the country to reduce air pollution.

Over January-August, India imported 6.84 million mt of US bituminous coal, up 109% year on year. Of that amount, 4.68 million mt, or 68%, went through Baltimore.

Terminals in Baltimore and Hampton Roads, which use the same shipping channel, have seen added congestion as railroads work to bring in coal to meet additional demand in Asia and Europe. Buyers needing different coking coals on the same vessel have found multiple loadings more difficult to program with suppliers, sources said.

INDIA, NOLA

Another 29%, or 2 million mt, for India came through the US Census district of New Orleans, the primary exit port for Illinois Basin coal.

Both NAPP and Illinois Basin coal are relatively high sulfur coals, at roughly 2-3%, while Central Appalachian coal is typically 1% sulfur. US high sulfur petcoke, FOB US Gulf Coast, is typically 6.5%.

US fuel-grade petcoke exports to India fell 54% over January-August to 2 million mt, from 4.2 million mt during the same period last year.

US bituminous coal exports from the US Census district of Norfolk, which encompasses three terminals in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, rose nearly 48% to 3.7 million mt in the period.

Japan and South Korea have also increased their imports of US bituminous coal this year, with exports to those nations up 74% and 38% respectively.

Japan accounted for 2.4 million mt of exports through the first eight months of the year, primarily through ports on the US West Coast, while South Korea accounted for 1.46 million mt, mainly through Westshore Terminals in Vancouver.

US bituminous coal exports to Europe have been roughly flat this year, totaling 7.9 million mt.

"While European coal burn will decline over time, Asian [thermal coal] demand is still increasing, and it's helping lift European interest in US coals to help back-fill their needs," Seaport Global analyst Mark Levin said in a note Tuesday.

--Hector Forster, hector.forster@spglobal.com

--Andrew Moore, andrew.moore@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jonathan Fox, jonathan.fox@spglobal.com