2017 was a key and challenging year for the Chinese gas sector. All indicators point to an acceleration of natural gas penetration in the energy mix and an intensification of gas market reforms to facilitate this expansion.
Boosted by the recovery of Chinese economic growth, the acceleration of coal-to-gas switching policies, and the rebound in the competitiveness of natural gas relative to competing fuels, China’s natural gas consumption reached a record high level. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), natural gas consumption rose by 15.3% to 237.3 bcm in 2017. China was the world’s fastest growing gas market: the country alone accounted for a quarter of global growth in gas consumption.
Shortly after his inauguration in May 2017, the new President of South Korea has unveiled a new energy policy that shifts away from nuclear and coal power and focuses on renewables and natural gas instead. The move responds to growing safety concerns over nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima accident and a series of earthquakes that hit southern Korea in 2016 and 2017. The energy transformation also responds to rising public hostility to coal power due to worsening air quality. Coal burning is also the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, which has committed to reduce its emissions by 37% by 2030.
Despite a decline in global coal demand for the second consecutive year, international steam coal prices doubled in 2016. This massive rise may seem paradoxical; in fact, it responded to market fundamentals: a tightening of the international market due to an unexpected surge in Chinese coal imports and the inability of exporters to meet this sudden increase. The surge in Chinese imports was not due to increasing demand – Chinese coal consumption in 2016 fell for the third year in a row– but to domestic production restrictions mandated by the Chinese government from April 2016. To remove excessive and outdated capacities in the domestic coal sector, that weighed on domestic coal prices, the government required coal mining companies to cut operating days from 330 to 276 a year. The new regulation led to a fall in coal production, shortages of coal and a steep increase in domestic coal prices, forcing power utilities to turn to the international market. However, after five years of low prices and reductions in investment, exporters were not able to respond to this sudden demand and international prices increased to clear the market.