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How to beat the West? Putin is betting that Asia will rely on cheap Russian coal for decades to come


Russia is spending more than $10 billion on a railroad that will help it ramp up coal exports to Asia. It’s even mobilizing prisoners to speed up construction.

A bulldozer moves piles of coal at the Osinnikovskaya coal mine in Osinniki, Russia.
A bulldozer moves piles of coal at the Osinnikovskaya coal mine in Osinniki, Russia. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

European governments are drawing up plans to phase out coal, U.S. coal-fired power plants are being shuttered as prices of clean energy plummet, and new Asian projects are being scrapped as lenders back away from the dirtiest fossil fuel.

And Russia? President Vladimir Putin’s government is spending more than $10 billion on railroad upgrades that will help boost exports of the commodity. Authorities will use prisoners to help speed the work, reviving a reviled Soviet-era tradition.

The project to modernize and expand railroads that run to Russia’s Far Eastern ports is part of a broader push to make the nation among the last standing in fossil fuel exports as other countries switch to greener alternatives. The government is betting that coal consumption will continue to rise in big Asian markets like China even as it dries up elsewhere.

Ramping Up Coal Exports

“It’s realistic to expect Asian demand for imported coal to increase if conditions are right,” said Evgeniy Bragin, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at UMMC Holding, which owns a coal company in western Siberia’s Kuzbass region. “We need to keep developing and expanding the rail infrastructure so that we have the opportunity to export coal.’’

The latest 720 billion ruble ($9.8 billion) project to expand Russia’s two longest railroads — the Tsarist-era Trans-Siberian and Soviet Baikal-Amur Mainline that link western Russia with the Pacific Ocean— will aim to boost cargo capacity for coal and other goods to 182 million tons a year by 2024. Capacity already more than doubled to 144 million tons under a 520 billion ruble modernization plan that began in 2013. Putin urged faster progress on the next leg at a meeting with coal miners in March.

“Russia is trying to monetize its coal reserves fast enough that coal will contribute to GDP rather than being stuck in the ground,” said Madina Khrustaleva, an analyst who specializes in the region for TS Lombard in London.

Putin is betting that his country’s land border with China and good relations with President Xi Jinping make it a natural candidate to dominate exports to the nation that consumes more than half of the world’s coal. His case is helped by the fact that Australia, currently the number one coal exporter, is facing trade restrictions from China amid a diplomatic dispute over the origins of the coronavirus. […]

For Putin there is more at stake than just money. At a video conference in March, he reminded government officials that the coal industry drives the local economies of several Russian regions that are home to about 11 million people. Unrest among coal miners helped put pressure on the government before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, though the sector is now a much smaller and less influential part of the economy.

“We need to carefully assess all possible scenarios in order to guarantee that our coal mining regions are developed even if global demand decreases,” Putin said.   

The country’s biggest coal producers are privately run, meaning they aren’t facing the kind of financing problems currently being encountered by listed companies elsewhere as banks pull back funding for dirty energy. Suek Plc, owned by billionaire Andrey Melnichenko, and Kuzbassrazrezugol OJSC, controlled by  Iskander Makhmudov, are both planning to increase output. 

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